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New England’s Electric Power Grid Is Undergoing A Transformation10:28
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The closure of the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station removes a source of carbon-free energy from the region. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
The closure of the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station removes a source of carbon-free energy from the region. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Dan Dolan, president of the New England Power Generators Association, says the region has a problem: “It's really hard to be half pregnant, but we're trying.”

The problem: We're creating a hybrid power grid, an electric-generating network that runs on a changing combination of fuels and technologies. He says the system is more complex and less predictable than the grid we had just a few years ago.

Dolan's association represents 90% of electric generators in the region. They use nuclear, natural gas, hydro, wind, solar and waste to produce electricity.

According to the grid operator, ISO New England, 20 years ago oil generated 19% of the region’s electricity, and coal 15%. Today, both account for 1%. Meanwhile, natural gas produced 13% of our electricity; now it’s 40%. The closing of Pilgrim last week reduced the region’s nuclear capacity from 25% to 20%. Renewables accounted for 6% in 2000; today it’s 9%. Hydro has been steady, around 6% to 7%.

How New England's energy mix has changed since 2000 -- before Pilgrim's closure (Courtesy of ISO New England)
How New England's energy mix has changed since 2000 -- before Pilgrim's closure (Courtesy of ISO New England)

But predicting the future mix of energy that will be used to generate our electricity, even just five years out, is difficult, even for an expert like Dolan.

"That's a tough one," he says. "My crystal ball doesn't see that far out. It's about as cracked and cloudy as anyone else's."

One thing Dolan does see clearly is the urgent need to reduce climate-disrupting emissions from the burning of fossil fuels.

"Carbon reduction and carbon abatement overhangs everything," he says. "We have mandatory requirements to cut carbon emissions economy-wide 80% by the year 2050. How we do that is still very much an open question."

Stable Sources Vs. Intermittent Ones

As grid operator, ISO New England ensures the flow of electricity runs reliably 24/7 all year, and it also maintains the online wholesale competitive marketplace. Electricity is a commodity produced by generators, bought by utilities.

A view of ISO New England’s control room in Holyoke. The massive digital display is a real-time image of the region’s power grid. (Courtesy of ISO New England)
A view of ISO New England’s control room in Holyoke. The massive digital display is a real-time image of the region’s power grid. (Courtesy of ISO New England)

Gordon van Welie, president and CEO of ISO New England, echoes Dolan’s warning. “This era that we're entering into I think is going to be one of the most challenging eras of our history," he says.

What concerns van Welie is energy security — reliably keeping the lights on during the transition to the new, greener grid.

Back in the old, predictable days 20 years ago, climate-killing fossil fuels and carbon-free nuclear plants generated most of our electricity. The fuels for those plants were stockpiled on the site of large, centralized power generators.

But increasingly, our energy supplies are insecure. Says van Welie, “We have rapidly moved to what we're now defining as an energy limited system.”

Inefficient, polluting fossil fuel plants and expensive-to-maintain nuclear stations have been shutting down at an increasing pace due to price pressure from relatively inexpensive natural gas.

In two decades the use of fracked gas has tripled. But gas-burning power plants are dependent on just-in-time energy supplies from pipelines and trucks. The problem is especially acute during extended cold spells in the winter, when natural gas is used to heat homes and buildings, as well as generate electricity. The siting of more pipelines in the region is intensely controversial.

The problem is the trajectory of the transition from fossil fuel generators to solar and wind. Sun and wind generators have inexhaustible supplies of carbon-free energy, and of course the energy is free, but they are intermittent, less predictable.

"What I'm hopeful for," van Welie says, "is that over the next two or three decades ... those technologies will mature and will ultimately take over from the fossil fuels to be able to balance the system.”

The two 500-foot cooling towers of the former Brayton Point Station in Somerset are demolished with explosives. The plant had burned coal since 1963. (Benjamin Lescault/Grace Barker Health via AP)
The two 500-foot cooling towers of the former Brayton Point Station in Somerset are demolished with explosives. The plant had burned coal since 1963. (Benjamin Lescault/Grace Barker Health via AP)

The transition to a cleaner grid is a delicate balancing act. The rise of renewables has been faster than anticipated. They are literally replacing old fossil fuel plants with a bang.

In late April, twin 500-foot cooling towers at Brayton Point in Somerset were blown up. The coal fired power plant was the largest in New England and the last in Massachusetts. The towers had been built only a few years earlier at a cost of $600 million, but coal could not compete with cleaner burning, cheaper natural gas.

As the dust settled it was clear the days of fossil fuel power generation are numbered. Days after the towers were demolished, Massachusetts-based Anbaric Development Partners announced plans to convert part of the 300-acre site to a renewable energy center, connecting the old coal plant's electric substation on land to a new generation of generators — offshore wind turbines that will be built along the region's coastline.

“It's really about transformation to the grid for use as renewables,” says Stephen Conant, manager of Anbaric’s $650 million project. “The grid we have now is built off of fossil fuels, and in order to enable offshore wind we need transmission facilities that are going to bring those megawatts to shore. The beauty of Brayton Point is that you just bring up the cable right to shore and connect it into the grid right there.”

More wind means more wires. The direct current cables will be buried 3 feet below the surface. But the beauty of Brayton Point's new renewable energy center is more than seafloor deep. Plans call for installing a giant battery on site to store enough low-cost wind energy to power 400,000 homes for a few hours. The stored electricity will be released onto the grid during times of peak demand when wholesale prices are at a premium. Store low, sell high.

ISO's van Welie says the region needs to retain the carbon-free generation output of its two remaining nuclear power plants — Millstone in Connecticut, scheduled to shut down in 2045, and Seabrook in New Hampshire, licensed to operate until 2050 — in order for the region to meet its mandated greenhouse gas emission targets.

But like Pilgrim plant, which shut down Friday after operating for decades, these nuclear generators are also having difficulty competing with low-cost fracked natural gas. Millstone’s owner recently threatened to shut down but got a last-minute bailout by Connecticut officials who will increase rates to state consumers.

ISO’s van Welie says these plants could benefit from batteries.

“Offshore [wind energy] is a lot more economic than nuclear power," he says. "If you pair that up with storage you could get to the same place as nuclear energy."

"The holy grail right now is storage."

Dan Dolan, New England Power Generators Association

Dolan, of the power generators association, is among those who see batteries as the saving grace for electric generators. "The holy grail right now is storage," he says.

Solar is also set to make the grid-size battery storage scene in New England. San Francisco-based Sunrun, a rooftop solar company, recently announced a first-in-the-nation partnership with National Grid to provide the regional grid with solar-stored energy produced by homeowners.

Audrey Lee, Sunrun's vice president of grid services, says the company persuaded ISO to allow it to compete in the 2022 wholesale electric market. Sunrun has a variety of business models to supply homeowners in New England with rooftop collectors and batteries. In some models, the system is free — the company will essentially be renting residents' roofs, networking the energy, selling it to National Grid, and providing homeowners with below-market rates for electricity.

The 20-megawatt energy commitment is a drop in the ocean compared with Anbaric’s offshore wind storage, but it will create what Lee calls a virtual, renewable power plant.

"It’s a virtual power plant because it can provide the same grid services that a centralized fossil fuel plant can," Lee says. "And because our solar and battery systems are connected to the internet they can be networked together. We can monitor them 24/7 and we can control them."

Dolan says managing the energy transition will keep the region from being dependent on fossil fuel. "To what degree can storage help to match when the wind doesn't blow or the sun doesn't shine is so critical on the system and for that maintaining an efficient and modern natural gas fleet is going to be critical.”

'It Can't Just Be On Power Plants'

Utility grid-scale storage batteries are still very expensive. Natural gas is cheap, and while cleaner than oil or coal, it is dangerously climate-disruptive. Advocates of a continuing role for natural gas, including ISO, say we need the fossil fuel as a bridge to ensure the reliability of the grid’s transition to a clean energy future.

"I don't think it's a question of how long the bridge is," says Paul Hibbard, an energy infrastructure expert with the Boston-based Analysis Group. "I think it's a question of how wide the bridge is."

Hibbard, a former chair of the state Department of Public Utilities, believes we need natural gas to keep us on a trajectory to meet our state and regional greenhouse gas targets. "Natural gas' role will change over time,” he says, “it will change from being our dominant source of energy to providing backup reliability.”

In coming years, as older fossil fuel plants retire, the use of natural gas to generate electricity is expected to increase, says ISO's van Welie. But paradoxically, as use of gas eventually declines, it is going to be a challenge for regional ratepayers and public utilities. That's because maintaining gas pipelines and less-used generating plants will increase the unit cost of energy output.

Besides, argues Dolan, electric generators have done the most of any sector of the economy to clean up its act.

Early afternoon bumper-to-bumper traffic on 93 in Milton (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Early afternoon bumper-to-bumper traffic on 93 in Milton (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

“It can't be just on power plants,” he says, citing U.S Energy Information Administration data. In 1990 electric-generating power plants in New England made up 26% of regional CO2 emissions, he says. Today, power plants in the six states account for less than 17% of emissions. Dolan says power generation is now the third-largest emitter of climate-changing gases in New England.

“Not one, not two, but third,” he declares. “We need to address transportation, which emits roughly double the amount of carbon of any other sector.”

Van Welie agrees, but says the transition to electric vehicles is not a panacea.

"You know, if you think about an electric vehicle, it's equivalent to your whole house's electrical demand,” he says.

To speed the transition from fossil fuel-powered vehicles to electric, van Welie, Dolan and Hibbard agree that a tax or fee on carbon fuels is needed. Such a move would put a value on carbon-free generators such as wind, hydro, solar and nuclear, and make climate-changing emitters more costly.

The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative mandates electric utilities buy an increasing amount of wholesale power from green resources and, thanks largely to energy efficiency measures over the last decade, the demand for electricity in New England has actually been declining about 1% a year. Four out of the five most energy-efficient states in the nation are in New England, with Massachusetts No. 1.

But van Welie expects that trend to change soon. “We don't think that will remain that way for long," he says. "If we're going to move the transportation fleet to the grid then it's going to go up again.”

Dolan is not worried. The increased demand does not necessarily mean we will need more power plants. He says even without getting greener, the current electric grid can handle the additional load and reduce vehicle emissions.

"We go from in the low 20 miles per gallon to an mpg equivalent of over 100 mpg just by using the existing electric generation fleet," he says. "So we see a massive opportunity to use some of the extraordinary gains that have been made on power plant emissions and start to transport it to the cars, buses and trains that are used."

Anticipating the future of energy is a very risky, big bucks business. For instance, few saw the shale gas fracking revolution coming just a decade ago.

But today, climate change is increasing energy uncertainties, making planning for the future even more difficult, says van Welie.

"We've been having these once-in-50-year events once every two years in recent times," he says, "so there's definitely a series of interactions happening in climate that are making our past experience no longer a predictor of what happens in the future.”

To reduce market uncertainty and price spikes due to increasingly unpredictable winter weather, ISO-NE wants to change the way wholesale electricity is bought and sold, giving utilities three days instead of one to bid for energy.

“Our classic model for managing the wholesale market is no longer sufficient for where we are going," van Welie says, “and so we're going to have to make some changes in our market design in order to accommodate that."

And Dolan says his power generator companies also need different wholesale market signals to help guide new investments.

“There are enormously interesting technologies, but they all come at a cost, so if we're going to meet the climate change challenge and meet it economically, that's going to require a lot more innovation," he says.

At risk are billions of dollars and the energy future of New England.

This segment aired on June 4, 2019.

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Bruce Gellerman Twitter Senior Reporter
Bruce Gellerman is an award-winning journalist and senior correspondent, frequently covering science, business, technology and the environment.

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