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New England’s grid is expected to be reliable this winter, but a cold snap could cause issues

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New England’s power grid will be reliable this winter under mild or moderate weather conditions, but a long cold snap could cause some issues, according to the winter outlook from the region’s electric grid operator, ISO-New England.

The grid operator says they do not anticipate calling for any controlled power outages – or “rolling blackouts” – this winter.

If the region gets a long period of cold weather, ISO-New England would call for more fuel deliveries or ask the public to voluntarily conserve energy, resorting to power outages “only to prevent a collapse of the power system that would take days or weeks to repair,” they said.

Federal weather forecasts show New England can expect higher-than-normal temperatures this winter, though climate change is making weather harder to predict and increasing the chance of severe weather, the grid operator says.

What’s different this year?

The ISO issued a similar warning last winter, but since then the war in Ukraine has caused significant volatility in energy markets.

“This is unquestionably the most uncertain global geopolitical situation we've seen affecting energy in at least 20 or 30 years,” said Dan Dolan, president of the New England Power Generators Association.

Consumers are feeling the effects of the war as their electricity and heating bills soar. But, Dolan said, price volatility is also causing supply constraints for stored fuels that help back up our power system, like liquified natural gas (LNG) and oil.

There’s less LNG – an alternative to pipeline gas, which is already constrained in New England – available globally to meet demand, he said. And the owners of power plants and heating companies have had to make bigger bets on oil.

In New England, oil is generally used as a backup for natural gas, if power plants can’t physically get gas or the price of gas spikes very high, Dolan said.

“That uncertainty is creating more risk in having more stockpiles of oil on site,” he said. “All that being said, I am very pleased to see that from a power generation side, those stockpiles are at their averages of what we saw last winter and some of the recent prior winters, so folks are making those investments.”

Nonetheless, Dolan said, it’s not the time for calls of crisis.

“We do believe that we'll be able to maintain reliability under the vast majority of circumstances and situations. But it's a tight market.”

Dolan is hoping this winter shines a light on long-term reliability concerns, especially as the clean energy transition transforms the grid.

Earlier this year, federal energy regulators convened a special forum to discuss long standing challenges the region faces each winter. Much of the debate there centered on natural gas; New England is heavily reliant on that fossil fuel for its electricity generation, but in the winter, it’s also used for heating, which can create supply constraints.

How the grid operator is preparing 

Ahead of the winter, ISO-New England worked with generators to understand how they were planning to procure fuel, held briefings with utility companies, looked at weather forecasts, and hosted an exercise to simulate what would happen under an emergency situation.

The grid operator also uses a rolling 3-week forecast of power system conditions to catch potential energy shortfalls.

There’s been particular attention on the availability of LNG, as the war in Ukraine shifts the global demand for that fuel, said Matt Kakley, a spokesperson for ISO-NE. Although the availability of that imported natural gas could shift, Kakley said at this point the grid operator is “optimistic that we'll have the fuel needed to get through the winter under mild and moderate conditions.”

If emergency conditions like a prolonged period of very cold weather, or shorter cold spells close together, develop, ISO-New England could import power from other regions, use power reserves, or ask people to turn off the lights, unplug electronics, limit laundry, take shorter showers, or lower the thermostat (but not to unhealthy levels).

Kakley said the ISO doesn’t have an exact definition of “prolonged period,” but emergency conditions would require several days of very cold temperatures.

The voluntary conservation would help extend stored oil and LNG supplies generators worked to keep producing power for the grid.

The grid operator is projecting peak demand for electricity will be 20,009 megawatts under normal weather conditions – higher than last winter’s peak of 19,756 megawatts.

Mara Hoplamazian reports on climate change, energy, and the environment for NHPR.