CONCORD — The New England power grid is vulnerable in winter and this year it is in an even more precarious situation due to energy supply chain issues and a changing global natural gas market.
ISO-New England officials Monday said if generators lack access to enough fuel, and a prolonged cold snap grips the region, rolling blackouts may be needed to prevent the entire grid from crashing.
System officials said three variables will determine the need for emergency action: weather severity, the global price of oil and LNG (liquified natural gas), and natural gas pipeline constraints during the winter heating season. The natural gas priority during winter is for heat.
If those events occur, the system operator will use several operating procedures to manage the grid, with controlled power outages a last resort, they said.
The officials said the weather is the biggest unknown that could trigger "controlled blackouts" to shed load and prevent a system failure.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is predicting a milder than normal winter for the region.
ISO officials said they expect to have the resources needed to meet consumer demand if the winter is mild, but a severe prolonged cold snap could mean emergency actions.
"As we continue our work with the New England states and industry stakeholders to transition to a cleaner grid, the ISO also has to maintain real-time power system reliability," said Gordon van Welie, ISO New England's president and CEO. "In recent years, oil and LNG have filled the gaps when extended periods of very cold weather have constrained natural gas pipeline supplies. Higher prices globally for these fuels, as well as pandemic-related supply chain challenges, could limit their availability in New England if needed to produce electricity this winter. The region would be in a precarious position if an extended cold snap were to develop and these fuels were not available."
Earlier this fall, federal energy regulators predicted the New England region would be very vulnerable during the winter heating season due to its reliance on natural gas to fuel a majority of its power generation, and spiking natural gas prices due to greater demand from Europe and Asia.
While New England traditionally has had the highest prices for LNG, that is no longer true as prices are higher in Europe and Japan, making them more lucrative markets for natural gas suppliers.
ISO officials used Texas last winter and California as examples of utilities having to shed load and they said they expect to communicate to residents and businesses the need for energy savings if a problem appears on the horizon as a first step to avert an emergency action.
"We operate in winter very close to the edge here in New England and we have for a long time," said van Welie. "The 15 million people in New England need to understand the precarious position we are in when we have an extended period of extreme cold weather."
With the shift away from fossil fuels, the situation is going to get worse, he said, and "we have a lot of work ahead of us to solve this problem."
The system operator predicts the peak winter demand this season will be 19,710 megawatts during average winter weather conditions of 10 degrees Fahrenheit, and 20,349 MW if temperatures reach below average conditions of 5 degrees.
Both projections are about 2 percent lower than last year's forecasts.
The New England winter record for peak usage is 22,818 MW during a January 2004 cold snap, and the summer peak was 28,130 MW, on Aug. 2, 2006.
"Highlighting these concerns (about this winter) is not meant to cause undue alarm at this early stage," said van Welie. "Rather, by identifying and sharing the conditions under which the power system would be most challenged, we hope to prepare the region that if these conditions arise, the ISO, utilities, and government officials may ask for conservation of electricity and gas usage as an early step in avoiding or minimizing the need for emergency actions."
He said while Hydro Quebec energy is not the entire solution it could help provide additional resources for the region.
ISO-New England describes itself as the independent, not-for-profit corporation responsible for keeping electricity flowing across the six New England states and ensuring that the region has reliable, competitively priced wholesale electricity today and into the future.
Van Welie said he is disappointed that Maine residents voted against the New England Clean Energy Connect transmission line, but said he could foresee two or three 1,200 MW lines bringing Canadian hydro power into New England, but they will be more expensive and take more time.
"People do not want to see (the transmission lines)," van Wilie said. "If you bury them, you lose the objection, but you incur a much higher price, but that is one way to solve the problem."
Several years ago, the ISO began compiling a 21-day forecast during winter that looks at projected weather, fuel supply, estimated consumer demand, and other factors affecting the grid.
Peter Brandien, vice president of system operations and market administration, ISO New England, said when asking for energy savings, they are not talking about avoiding just peak periods during the day, but savings for the duration of the cold spell.
"If we see a shortfall coming, we can say we want you to take action Monday, to prevent a problem Thursday," Brandien said. "We want people to conserve energy until we get through the event."
Anne George, vice president of external affairs and corporate communications, ISO New England, said her organization will coordinate with utilities and state agencies on conservation measures.
"We are working on making sure we are working in close concert with distribution facilities and state agencies," George said. "We need utilities and state agencies to understand when we need to call for conservation efforts we are asking for more than we would have done in the past. We want to make sure we are all coordinated."
System operators used three winter scenarios to predict this winter's situation: last winter when there were no extreme temperatures; the winter of 2017-2018 with a mild forecast but with a 13-day cold snap, and the winter of 2013-2014 with several cold-weather stretches including one lasting 10 consecutive days.
Under the analysis, ISO officials anticipate reliable system operations without emergency procedures with mild conditions similar to last year.
If the weather is similar to 2017-2018, there would be limited emergency procedures, while a winter similar to 2013-2014 would require all available emergency procedures.
Officials said they do not anticipate any emergency actions if generators have adequate fuel supplies and there are no generator or transmission outages.
Garry Rayno may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.