New England has undergone a profound shift in how it produces electricity over the past decade and a half, phasing out coal and oil plants while becoming more reliant on natural gas.
Following passage of a state energy law this summer, Massachusetts will see wind, solar and imported hydropower become increasingly important sources of energy in the coming years, but many in the energy industry expect natural gas to remain a crucial resource for the foreseeable future.
“We’re not going to likely see any new coal built in the region,” said Anne George, vice president of external affairs and corporate communications for grid operator ISO New England. “Oil is very limited in this region. There’s unlikely to be any new nuclear in the region. So you’re left with natural gas, and we do see the increasing desire to develop renewables.”
Back in 2000, just 15 percent of New England’s power was produced by burning natural gas. Last year, natural gas accounted for 49 percent of all electricity generated in the region.
Over the same span, the amount of electricity produced by coal and oil dropped off dramatically in New England. Last year, coal and oil combined to produce 6 percent of New England’s electricity, down from 40 percent in 2000.
The development of fracking technology led to an abundance of relatively cheap domestic natural gas, which produces much lower carbon emissions levels compared to coal and oil.
Additionally, natural gas power plants are typically smaller and easier to site, said Dan Dolan, executive director of the New England Power Generators Association.
“I think natural gas will continue to have a large role,” Dolan said.
Pipelines and controversies
Although natural gas is a major power source for New England, the region’s increased reliance on the fuel is not without controversy. Environmental groups have raised concerns over the safety and long-term effects of fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, a technique that extracts natural gas from the ground by injecting high-pressure liquid deep into subterranean rocks and boreholes.
Much of the fracked gas used in New England is piped into the region from Pennsylvania and Ohio.
Pipeline expansions have faced fierce local opposition in Massachusetts. U.S. Rep. Stephen Lynch has opposed pipeline projects in West Roxbury and Weymouth. Following deadly pipeline explosions in Illinois and Alabama, Lynch urged the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to halt work on the Massachusetts projects until the explosions are comprehensively investigated.
“To do otherwise is a reckless abrogation of your responsibility to protect the public from harm,” Lynch wrote in a Nov. 18 letter to FERC Chairman Norman Bay. “As the number of pipeline incidents continues to climb, we simply cannot afford to push ahead with projects in densely populated urban and suburban neighborhoods that exponentially increase the potential for loss of life.”
Many have said the capacity of the pipelines in Massachusetts is too low to reliably meet the region’s needs, constraining the supply of natural gas and leaving markets susceptible to volatile price swings during periods of high-demand, particularly the winter months.
ISO New England, the independent, not-for-profit grid operator, has advocated for increasing pipeline capacity. That position, George said, is not a statement about the merits of natural gas or any other energy source, but a reflection of free market conditions.
“We have a need for electric generation, and what the market is bringing forth is natural gas,” George said. “We’ve never endorsed a particular pipeline project, but what we have said is this region, looking at what we currently have and what we are likely to have in the future, needs additional pipeline capacity,”
Dolan, whose organization represents power generators throughout the region, isn’t sure there’s an urgent need to expand existing pipelines or build new ones.
While additional infrastructure is always beneficial, he opposes publicly subsidizing New England pipeline projects at present. He pointed to the low prices seen this autumn.
“Despite our increased use of natural gas and concerns about constraints, we are seeing dramatically reduced prices,” he said. “Is the fuel delivery infrastructure as constrained as it may appear or not? Prices may suggest it’s not.”
Renewables and the future
Massachusetts made a new commitment to increasing the region’s renewable energy production this summer, when lawmakers passed a law requiring utility companies to competitively solicit and contract for approximately 1,200 megawatts of renewable power. New England’s entire power-generation system has a capacity of approximately 30,000 megawatts. The law also calls for the state’s electric utilities to purchase 1,600 megawatts of offshore wind power.
“Massachusetts is always at the forefront of adopting innovative clean energy solutions, and this legislation will allow us to build on that legacy and embrace increased amounts of renewable energy, including hydropower,” Gov. Charlie Baker said at the Aug. 9 bill-signing ceremony. “With our partners in the legislature, the commonwealth has taken another major step towards providing residents and businesses with a cost-effective and reliable clean energy future.”
While the new law will result in more renewable energy sources being integrated into the power generation system, Dolan is worried about potential unintended consequences.
“Certainly, the state has made a decision to move down that route despite the cost impacts we feel will be felt on consumer bills,” he said. “We’ve never seen anything like this anywhere else in the country; we’re crossing new ground here. Offshore wind, solar, onshore wind are acknowledged across the board as more expensive, but for various reasons, the state has decided to carve out the market for those resources and bring them in.”
In October, the New England Council released a report describing the complex and interconnected nature of energy policy issues.
“Any decision we make about natural gas, renewable energy, nuclear power, or coal- or oil-powered electric supply will have impacts on the price and supply of every other kind of energy, as well as our progress toward environmental goals and mandates,” New England Council President and CEO James Brett said. “Decisions made in one New England state about the preferred mix and source of electricity will often have impacts in other states in the need for additional electric transmission or pipeline capacity.”
Wind and solar power systems generate electricity intermittently and are, to some extent, dependent on the weather. Since there isn’t currently technology that allows for massive amounts of wind and solar power to be stored up and used when needed, there is still a major place for natural gas, Dolan said.
“We still need other resources to quickly ramp up and ramp down to fill in the gaps when those intermittent resources are not available,” he said.
In the control room at ISO New England’s Holyoke headquarters, a sprawling digital schematic of the region’s power grid fills an entire wall. Beneath that backdrop, a team of technicians works around the clock, making sure there’s enough energy supply to meet the demand at any given minute. Acting like air traffic controllers for the region’s power lines, they direct energy resources, monitor markets in real time and make sure electricity being produced ends up where it’s needed.
“Since you can’t store electricity in large amounts, they have to balance the supply and demand minute to minute, 24/7,” George said.
High-capacity energy storage technology would be revolutionary, but could still be years away from becoming a practical reality. Widespread use of electric cars could also have a significant impact on energy needs in the future.
“Large scale energy storage has and remains the elusive Holy Grail in this industry,” Dolan said. “If we start to see electric cars, what does that mean? How does electricity usage change if that elusive Holy Grail of storage is realized? For me, that will be the most fascinating thing to watch.”