Warning of rolling blackouts puts natural gas in perspective
Gov. Dannel Malloy and other New England governors showed foresight in 2013 when they called for upgrading and modernizing natural gas infrastructure throughout the region, in part to complement the growing use of intermittent solar and wind energy.
Unfortunately, inconsistent policies and litigation have so far blocked needed expansion. Now, the region is seeing the consequences of inaction, with Bloomberg reporting Dec. 27 – even as the full impact of an extreme and prolonged cold spell had not yet hit — that “spot prices more than tripled…and turned the region into the world’s priciest gas market.”
In November 2013, the Connecticut regulatory authority approved a natural gas expansion plan. Gov. Malloy noted that it was “another step to help our residents and businesses lower their energy bills….” A month later, six New England governors jointly called for “significant investments in our region’s energy resources and infrastructure.” Among the reasons, the governors cited natural gas infrastructure “to balance intermittent generation,” which is solar and wind energy. They committed themselves “to achieving consensus …. consistent with laws and policies across the region.”
Consensus is still lacking despite Gov. Malloy’s efforts and those of other governors. After initial efforts, subsequent setbacks revealed the need for better clarity and more consistency among the states to encourage infrastructure investments.
Adding to growing concern throughout the region, the organization responsible for keeping the power flowing in New England – ISO New England – issued a report January 17 finding that in 23 scenarios analyzed for the winter of 2024/2025 “all but the most optimistic case resulted in rolling blackouts.”
Last October, the site manager at a manufacturing facility in Wallingford warned that “addressing issues related to high costs and the lack of pipeline capacity is critical to our future success.” Employers throughout New England have issued similar warnings.
While energy prices have risen dramatically, there are other consequences. On Jan. 5, oil, used primarily as a back-up fuel, generated one-third of the region’s electricity. Cleaner-burning natural gas, normally accounting for about half the region’s generation, provided just 16 percent because of inadequate fuel supply. Solar and wind were providing just 2 percent.
There has been good progress since 2013 deploying solar and wind resources. Expanding renewable energy resources is a good thing. But wind and solar are intermittent resources that require natural gas generation to fill the gap. To ignore the severe consequences of inadequate gas supplies impacting the economic health of the region runs counter to the foresight shown by governors in 2013.
Someday — decades from now according to ISO New England — the electric grid may be powered by renewable energy backed up by battery storage. For now, the needs of consumers expecting electricity around the clock, including major employers, must still be met by natural gas-fired power plants working in concert with intermittent power from wind and solar.
Utilities, such as Eversource, for the most part have exited the business of generating electricity in response to public policy. But they are responsible for reliably delivering power and are key players to achieve energy efficiency and environmental goals, including those associated with climate change concerns.
New England utilities are national leaders promoting energy efficiency and adopting renewable resources. Eversource promotes solar energy on a large scale. It invests in major wind development with a goal of producing 2,000 megawatts of offshore wind energy in the next decade. To bolster basic reliability, it invests $1 billion annually to improve and maintain its infrastructure.
When New England’s governors made natural gas pipeline expansion a priority in 2013, natural gas companies and utilities were asked to step forward and they responded with investment proposals subject to regulatory approval and oversight. Those proposals were blocked or stalled by conflicting public policies and aggressive litigation. That must end.
It is time for the region to adopt consistent policies and a regulatory framework that recognize the need for both intermittent renewables and natural gas generation — while including a workable role for utilities to invest in natural gas infrastructure as a hedge against price spikes and the potential for rolling blackouts during peak periods.
Carl Gustin began his career with Northeast Utilities in Hartford. He later was an executive at the U.S. Department of Energy in Washington, D.C. and a senior vice president at NSTAR, an Eversource predecessor, before retiring in 2000. Since then he has remained active consulting and writing on energy issues.
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