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What could put New England's electricity grid at risk this winter?


Depending on several factors, New England’s regional electricity grid operator could ask residents to turn down the heat, do less laundry and minimize cooking this winter.

While forecasts predict a mild winter, the grid could be in a precarious position, ISO-New England says. ISO coordinates the flow of electricity through the transmission system, and plans for how to meet the region’s electricity needs for the future.

Here are four things you need to know about how ISO-New England says they’re preparing for the winter.

1) Three things could strain the grid: natural gas pipeline constraints, a lower-than-normal supply of oil and liquid natural gas and the possibility of prolonged cold snaps.  

Natural gas accounts for a little over half of the electricity generation in the region.

Pipeline constraints occur when there’s a simultaneous demand for natural gas for heating homes, and operating gas-fired power plants. Home customers get first priority, and the remaining gas goes to the electric plants. But when there isn’t a lot of it or when prices are high, ISO looks to other regional fuel sources, like oil or liquid natural gas. And those storage levels are lower than in recent winters, says Gordon Van Welie, president and CEO of ISO-New England.

“The region has yet to find a robust solution to bolster the supply chain for these fuels during inclement weather,” he said. “The region also has not yet taken other mitigating measures, such as increasing the imports of hydroelectricity from Quebec. Higher prices for these fuels globally, as well as pandemic-related supply chain challenges, could affect deliveries into New England,” he said.

A mild winter forecast doesn’t mean there won’t be cold snaps, and with a changing climate, extreme weather events are becoming frequent and harder to predict.

2) Emergency actions may be necessary if extreme weather does occur and fuel supplies aren’t replenished.  “I’m not saying this to cause undue alarm in this early stage,” van Welie said. “But by sharing conditions we hope to prepare the region.” Some of those emergency actions include importing power from neighboring regions, calling on residents and businesses to conserve energy, and employing rolling blackouts as a last resort.

The outages in Texas following an extreme winter storm in February provided some of the backdrop for Monday’s press call. Van Welie said that while New England isn’t Texas and has a more robust grid, most people in the region don’t understand the risks when it gets cold.

“We need people to understand how vulnerable it can be under the wrong set of conditions and that this region hasn't yet solved this problem,” he said.

3) Energy efficiency efforts across the state have cut down regional electricity use over the past few years. Gordon van Welie said the demand forecast this winter is 2% lower than last winter due to a combination of energy efficiency and behind-the-meter solar power.  

Van Welie says that there will be more demand on the grid in the future, with more electric vehicles and heating. Distributed generation and energy efficiency efforts like weatherization and efficient light bulbs can reduce demand and limit the construction of new power plants to make up for the increased demand from electrification.

But in New Hampshire, the Public Utilities Commission rejected a plan to spend more on energy efficiency, and instead issued an order that would decrease the rates that fund those programs. Clean Energy New Hampshire has said it plans on challenging that order in court.

4) ISO-New England pointed out that more needs to happen to create a reliable in-region supply of energy, rather than relying on a “vulnerable energy supply chain.”  

“Insufficient in-region energy storage, limited access to hydro storage in Quebec and continued dependence on a fragile fuel supply chain for gas and oil will continue to inject uncertainty into the supply picture,” van Welie said.

He emphasized that the region needs to “redouble our efforts” to gain access to imported hydro and a plan to transition out of gas. Voters in Maine recently blocked the construction of a transmission linethat would have carried hydroelectric power to Massachusetts.

While getting more renewables on the grid is one part of the equation, van Welie emphasized that figuring out longer-duration energy storage is essential.

For the next few months, the grid operator says it is anticipating reliable system operations for this winter, especially if generators can adequately replenish their fuel supplies and if there aren’t unexpected generator or transmission outages.

Do you have questions about energy or electricity in New Hampshire? Send us an email at climate@nhpr.org.
Copyright 2021 New Hampshire Public Radio. To see more, visit New Hampshire Public Radio.

Daniela is NHPR's Couch Fellow for Innovation.
Mara Hoplamazian