The air traffic controller of electricity

Gordon van Welie, the president and CEO of ISO-New England, says there are four pillars that support the regional power grid his organization oversees, and all four are showing signs of stress. 

Pillar number one is renewable energy. With clean electricity the key to decarbonizing the transportation and heating sectors, van Welie says New England needs to produce or procure a lot more renewable energy. “It’s clear we’re not going fast enough,” he said on The Codcast.

Pillar number two is transmission, the ability to move electricity from where it is produced to where it is needed. Van Welie said transmission is adequate at the moment. But with power generation needing to double or triple over the next few decades to electrify the economy and deal with climate change, transmission is looming as a major hurdle. The decision by Maine voters to scrap a transmission line carrying hydro-electricity from Quebec into New England is a sign of the emerging problem.

Pillar number three is the need for balancing resources, electricity that can be called on as backup when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing. “The problem in New England is we don’t have a very predictable input source into the electric grid, particularly in the winter time when the gas pipelines are constrained,” he said. “I really see [natural] gas as the only option for balancing the system at the moment.”

Van Welie says other options for balancing fuels could be pursued, including clean hydrogen. But he sees little effort to seek out alternatives. “I don’t see any focus on that problem in the region,” he said. “We’re just relying on essentially season by season spot purchases of imported fuels and eventually we’re going to come up short with that strategy. “ 

The final pillar is energy adequacy. When it gets cold, and the gas pipelines coming into the region reach their limit, New England can run short of the key fuel needed to run the region’s power plants. Even when it’s not that cold, the high price of natural gas can affect the regional market.

This winter, for example, the war in Ukraine sent fossil fuel prices soaring on world markets. The higher prices for natural gas prompted New England’s electricity generators to shift to relatively lower-priced oil and even coal for fuel, both of which drove up greenhouse gas emissions. All that happened even as the winter was relatively mild.  

“It’s the second most expensive winter in our history of the wholesale markets, surpassed only by the winter of 2013-14, when we had a polar vortex,” van Welie said 

Van Welie likens ISO-New England to the air traffic controllers who keep planes flying safely. Like air traffic controllers, ISO-New England doesn’t own what it oversees — the region’s electricity generating plants or transmission lines. Yet through management of the grid and oversight of various wholesale markets the grid operator is charged with getting power to where it needs to go and keeping the lights on.

Van Welie said it’s his responsibility to draw attention to problems as they arise, even if his warnings are not welcomed by environmental advocates who want to dispense with the use of fossil fuels immediately.

“I certainly do feel like I’m under fire and the organization as a whole is under fire,” he said.

His big fear is that demand for electricity will one day outstrip supply and force the grid operator to bring demand and supply back into balance by shutting off power to customers on a rolling basis.  

“We want people to know that’s a real risk,” van Welie said. “When we do that, it’s not going to feel like reliability. It’s going to feel like someone is turning your lights off.” 

BRUCE MOHL

 

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FROM AROUND THE WEB

 

HEALTH/HEALTH CARE

If the US Supreme Court overturns Roe v Wade, Massachusetts could become a haven for women seeking abortions who live in states where the procedure is banned or limited. This is particularly true as New Hampshire tightens its own abortion rules. (Gloucester Daily Times)

Beverly and Addison Gilbert Hospitals form a partnership with Endicott College to train a pipeline of nurses who will then get jobs at the two local hospitals. (Salem News)

A Boston Globe editorial says the united front of regulatory agencies in the face of proposed Mass General Brigham expansion needs to become standard practice as the state tries to rein in health care costs. (Boston Globe)

If the VA clinic in Northampton closes, a 120-bed housing complex for formerly homeless veterans would remain on the campus, but the services available to those veterans would disappear. (MassLive)

ELECTIONS

Two months in, Attorney General Maura Healey’s campaign for governor is very light on policy specifics. (Boston Globe) CommonWealth made a similar point late last month. 

BUSINESS/ECONOMY

Elon Musk, Twitter’s largest shareholder, decides he will not joint the company’s board aftwr all. (New York Times)

Budzee of Easthampton, the first Amazon-style delivery service for marijuana, is set to open Monday. (Daily Hampshire Gazette)

EDUCATION

Chicopee school superintendent Lynn Clark, through her attorney, denies many of the allegations made in an FBI affidavit against her. (MassLive)

TRANSPORTATION

A man dies after getting his arm stuck in an MBTA Red Line train. (Boston Herald)

JetBlue, once a darling of the travel industry, is facing challenges as delays and cancellations mount. (Boston Globe)

ENERGY/ENVIRONMENT

Environmental and social justice organizations protest against a proposed $40 million Eversource natural gas pipeline from Longmeadow to Springfield. (MassLive)

CRIMINAL JUSTICE/COURTS

Twelve State Police troopers are fired for not getting a COVID vaccine. (Associated Press)

The State Police union is unhappy with questions that officers will be asked during a new certification process. (Salem News)

MEDIA

As Gannett contracts and shifts its focus in Massachusetts, community leaders are alarmed about becoming news deserts. (Boston Globe) Gannett CEO Mike Reed earned $7.74 million in 2021, according to a recent proxy filing. (Boston Business Journal)

The New Bedford Light debuts NoticiasNB, a weekly news update for the Spanish-speaking community.