The prospect is alarming: rolling blackouts across New England as temperatures plummet below freezing for days on end, the result of a power grid that can’t keep up.
Mindful of the debacle in Texas, where failures in the power grid resulted in hundreds of deaths during a freezing spell in February 2021, energy officials here are issuing unusually strident warnings about the potential for shortages if this winter turns out to be especially cold.
The culprit? Russia’s war with Ukraine has destabilized energy markets, particularly supplies of liquefied natural gas, while pipelines that bring natural gas in from other parts of the United States remained constrained. The threat also underscores the stark choices New England faces for its energy future, as gas and pipeline companies push to bring more gas to the region, while clean energy and climate advocates warn that will harm the planet and only make the region’s dependence on gas worse.
The concern is great enough that earlier this month, the five commissioners of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission made a rare visit to New England to hold a daylong meeting in Burlington to come to grips with just how serious the problem is.
“We’re going into this winter basically crossing our fingers and hoping," FERC commissioner James Danly said at the event, which included representatives from the regional grid operator, ISO-New England, energy and pipeline companies, state regulators, and clean energy advocates.
The challenge is daunting, as New England has limited ways to bring in natural gas — pipeline, ship, truck, or barge. In addition to being the dominant fuel for home heating, natural gas is used to generate more than half of the electricity in New England. And in winter, when demand is high, gas goes to heating buildings first before generating electricity.
“The underlying problem is that we’re overly dependent on a single fuel," said Rebecca Tepper, chief of the energy and environment bureau at the Massachusetts attorney general’s office. “We’re overly dependent on natural gas and the entire region is at risk any time we have any disruption on that system."
But while the region is racing to switch from fossil-fuel-fired power plants to renewable energy, some experts say this winter is exposing the challenges of that transition, with the best clean energy solutions, such as offshore wind, not yet on line, leaving officials to scramble for solutions that don’t further tie the region to fossil fuels.
When ISO-New England has issued similar warnings in previous years, clean energy advocates say, the grid has looked first to solve the problem by securing more supplies of gas.
“Investing in more fossil fuel infrastructure is not going to solve the problem," said Melissa Birchard, the director of clean energy and grid transition for the Acadia Center, a clean energy advocacy group. “It just continues our cycle of not investing in clean resources, and can exacerbate climate change."
Instead, she and other advocates want the region to reduce demand by doubling down on its existing successes with energy efficiency, while also pushing for more conservation efforts and working to get clean energy on line quickly.
Right now, Massachusetts is on the cusp of an offshore wind boom. The first phase of one project, the 800-megawatt Vineyard Wind farm, is expected to be up and running next year. In 2025, a second offshore wind farm, Mayflower Wind, is expected to bring roughly the same amount on line. Two years later, an additional 1,600 megawatts are expected to be powering the grid.
But the promise of clean energy a few years from now does not solve the electric reliability problem now, or the prospect of winter blackouts. At the meeting in Vermont, FERC chairman Richard Glick said people in the industry need to consider all possible options, while being wary of repeating the same choices made in the past.
“There are all sorts of tools at our disposal," Glick said. “We have to talk about what else needs to be done. Because relying on importing LNG just is not a sustainable solution."
But the problem, according to ISO New England, is that older fossil-fuel power plants are being retired faster than new clean energy projects are coming on line. That challenge was illustrated by Donald Trump-era delays in the approval process for the Vineyard Wind offshore project, which had been initially slated to be generating electricity by now, and legal challenges that have slowed progress on a planned transmission line to bring hydroelectric energy from Quebec.
As a result, ISO-New England said it needs to hold off plans to shut Constellation Energy’s Everett LNG terminal, one of only two sources of LNG in the New England. The terminal was slated to close in 2024, but the grid operator now says doing so could compromise the grid since there won’t be sufficient renewable energy resources in time to replace it.
“Without adequate gas, the region may not be able to meet the demand for home heating and electricity — and, when reliability suffers, the clean energy transition suffers," ISO New England wrote in a statement ahead of the FERC meeting.
But clean energy advocates say there are other solutions that can alleviate stress on the grid in the short term.
In the near term, they argue that states should implement what’s known as demand response, which provides incentives to residential and business customers to reduce their usage during times of high demand. That approach helped save California from blackouts during a brutal heat wave this summer, when consumers were asked to conserve energy, reducing demand by more than 2,000 megawatts below its record-setting peak.
“When you think about demand response, you think about larger commercial industrial users who are asked as part of a demand response program to stop or decrease operations at a certain time," said Phelps Turner, a senior attorney with the Conservation Law Foundation.
In Massachusetts, demand response programs are used in the summer at times when the grid is stressed. National Grid and Eversource have programs called “ConnectedSolutions" that pay customers to cut down on usage in the summer. The utilities have piloted a winter version, but have not launched it because it only reduced demand by a small amount, according to Ezra McCarthy, National Grid’s manager of customer energy management in New England.
Advocates are hoping that with more focus, a program could be designed to cut energy use more effectively in the winter.
“It’s clear that, from a climate perspective and from an environmental justice perspective, we can’t build more pipelines," said Turner. “But we have not spent the time that we should have been spending on clean energy solutions to the supply problem."
New England’s problem isn’t new. As far back as 2006, warning bells were ringing that the grid was overly dependent on natural gas. “The region’s fast pace of growth in gas use, coupled with recent gas price spikes and their attendant impact on consumers, has raised questions about whether the region has overinvested in natural gas to the point that it has put system reliability at risk," a research report from the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston warned back then.
The challenges are only magnified now, as Massachusetts and other states in the region increasingly look to electrification — via electric heat pumps for home heating and electric vehicles — as the most cost-effective way to cut greenhouse gas emissions.
“It’s going to be hard," said Jeremy McDiarmid, of the Northeast Clean Energy Council. “But just because it’s hard doesn’t mean we can’t do it. And we have no choice."
Sabrina Shankman can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @shankman.