After years of dire warnings that limited natural gas supplies could lead to winter blackouts on New England’s gas-reliant electric grid, a new analysis from grid operator ISO-New England found there’s a lower chance of issues over the next five years.
But at a Tuesday conference held in Portland, Maine, federal regulators, officials from New England states and energy companies questioned the “180-degree turn” from the potential catastrophe ISO warned about in September. The change in tone caused confusion for many energy officials who gathered to discuss the winter reliability crisis.
“It’s very difficult for me to go on the last year and a half telling the powers that be in Rhode Island that the sky might be falling this winter, then go back and say it’s all manageable,” said Ron Gerwatowski, chair of the Rhode Island Public Utilities Commission [the equivalent of Connecticut’s PURA]. “And maybe it is manageable, but I still worry about that.”
Assuming the grid can manage a normal winter, Gerwatowski added, New England is still one contingency away from something bad happening.
The analysis found that solar power had lowered the demand for energy in the region and fewer power plants had retired, putting New England in a better position to manage gas constraints in the winter.
ISO-New England President and CEO Gordon van Welie cautioned, however, that the study is not complete and that there are still serious concerns about long-term winter reliability.
The study assumes that the gas distribution system will operate without issues, and that new offshore wind resources will compensate for oil plants shutting down. But recent delays and canceled contracts for Northeast wind projects have raised doubts, van Welie said.
Additionally, the study hasn’t created models for the early 2030s, when ISO projects a massive spike in demand for electricity.
“I’m not feeling sanguine about the risks,” van Welie said. “In the short run, I’m feeling a little bit more relaxed about where we are given the analysis, but in the longer run, I’m still as concerned as I’ve ever been. There’s just too many variables out there that could break in the negative direction for us.”
Van Welie acknowledged if one of the nuclear power plants in New England or connections to Quebec’s grid failed for just a week during the winter, it could lead to a real crisis.
Speakers questioned ISO’s assumption that the region’s gas distribution system will run without issue. Gerwatowski recalled the 2019 Newport gas shortage, when low gas pipeline pressure in Massachusetts forced the utility National Grid to suspend gas to Aquidneck Island for a week in January. He worried that allowing the Everett liquefied natural gas facility in Massachusetts to close could lead to a “Newport on steroids” event.
Other speakers questioned ISO for changing its outlook based on new solar, considering its dependence on sunny weather. Earlier this month, ISO said smoke from wildfires in Canada had significantly lowered solar production in the region.
Eversource Vice President of Energy Supply James Daly said the study used “optimistic” assumptions that should be questioned, including projections of 1,600 megawatts of offshore wind and 1,400 megwatts of energy storage coming online, most of which isn’t under contract.
“There are three major offshore wind farms, totaling 3,200 megawatts, that have asked that their contracts be terminated because they’re not financially viable,” Daly said. “That is enormous. Two years ago, that was not on the horizon at all, and new infrastructure in New England continues to get significant challenges in terms of opposition of all sorts that delay these projects.”
Connecticut DEEP Commissioner Katie Dykes said the analysis doesn’t give the region a license to relax. The analysis needs to include data up to 2032, she said, and they must immediately prepare for widespread electrification in the next decade.
“It takes five to seven, eight, 10 years to build transmission, to get offshore wind – a nascent resource that’s in a very dynamic moment right now – deployed,” Dykes said.
Does the region need Everett?
The fate of the Everett liquefied natural gas facility in Boston Harbor has been central to discussions about winter reliability in New England. The facility, owned by Constellation Energy, is set to close next year unless it secures enough contracts.
New England is heavily reliant on liquified natural gas imports in the winter when home heating draws more gas from the region’s pipelines. ISO-New England has said that keeping the facility open after its sister facility – Mystic Generating Station – closes next year is crucial for the region to manage the transition to renewable energy.
But the latest study shifted that opinion, saying the region’s electric system could manage without Everett in the near term. Still, ISO officials insisted during the forum that the region should work to keep the facility open, and shouldn’t close natural gas infrastructure until it has an acceptable replacement.
“To me, it’s a simple decision,” van Welie said. “The region should retain Everett. That’s why we said it’s prudent to do so. I think it would be extremely unwise if we were to let that facility go.”
James Holodak Jr., vice president of energy supply at National Grid, which provides electric and gas service in Rhode Island, said the terminal is important to the company’s operation and crucial should issues arise on the interstate gas pipelines.
Van Welie said one problem that remains is a lack of oversight and analysis of the gas system. ISO only oversees the electric grid, he said, and more information is needed from the gas system to get a full picture of how Everett impacts the entire energy supply.
“We’re making an assumption [in the study], which has been challenged today, that the gas system will be reliable,” he said.