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Regional Power Manager Warns of Future Grid Vulnerabilities In New England

Gustav Holmström

As natural gas gets diverted for home and other heating this winter, the head of New England's electricity grid is warning about possible future risks to the region's power.

Homes and businesses that heat with natural gas draw more fuel in the winter – that gas keeps those customers warm – but it means the fuel isn't making its way to natural-gas fired power plants, which use it to make electricity.

“We're facing the reality that it's very difficult to build new gas pipelines into New England,” said Gordon van Welie, president and CEO of ISO New England. “There is a point at which we will not be able to ensure reliability if we continue retiring non-gas resources.”

Speaking on a conference call with reporters, he says there are now more gas-fired power plants in the region, but during winter peak demand, the region's infrastructure can't always get fuel to them quickly enough.

That means system operators have to rely on older oil, coal, and nuclear plants to provide energy. The problem is those are closing.

“In just the last three years, more than 4,000 megawatts of coal, oil and nuclear generators have retired or announced they will retire by 2019,” van Welie said.

That list includes Brayton Point, a coal-fired plant in Massachusetts. and Pilgrim, the state's only remaining nuclear plant. Meanwhile, Connecticut's nuclear provider – Watertown’s Millstone Power Station – is reporting issues competing against cheaper-priced natural gas.

Eventually, van Welie says, renewables like wind and solar may be the solution to New England's array of power issues, bt in the meantime, he says during an extreme weather event, he can't rule out the possibility of voluntary power restrictions, or in extreme cases, rolling blackouts.

This report comes from the New England News Collaborative, eight public media companies coming together to tell the story of a changing region, with support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Patrick Skahill is a reporter at WNPR. He covers science and the environment. Prior to becoming a reporter, he was the founding producer of WNPR's The Colin McEnroe Show, which began in 2009. Patrick's reporting has appeared on NPR's Morning Edition, Here & Now, and All Things Considered. He has also reported for the Marketplace Morning Report. He can be reached by phone at 860-275-7297 or by email: pskahill@ctpublic.org.