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New England’s electric grid could be more stable than anticipated in the next few winters

Everett Councilor Stephanie Martins speaks with residents and local climate activists near the Everett marine Terminal.
Robin Lubbock
/
WBUR
Everett Councilor Stephanie Martins speaks with residents and local climate activists near the Everett Marine Terminal.

Next summer, New England’s largest fossil fuel power plant, the Mystic Generating Station, is closing. And now a nearby facility, the Everett Marine Terminal, that supplies fuel for that plant and helps provide heat for homes every winter, may shut down as well.

The Everett facility’s role in the ecosystem of electricity and heat in New England — and the reliability of our power in the wintertime, generally — were some of the big topics the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and other regional leaders discussed in a Portland hotel ballroom on Tuesday.

The debate about whether New England needs to retain Everett is, in a sense, a microcosm of larger energy issues the region faces because of its dependence on gas. Transition off of it too quickly, and some warn the grid might face power shortages in critical moments. Delay too long, and the planet continues to cook.

At the group's last meeting in September, the message from the regional grid operator was, as one federal official described it, “the sky is falling.” But officials this week seemed more optimistic about being able to “manage” any energy shortfalls on the coldest winter days if the Everett terminal shutters. At least for the next few years.

“In the short run, I’m feeling a little more relaxed. But in the long run, I’m still as nervous as I’ve ever been,” said Gordon van Welie, President and CEO of ISO New England, the nonprofit that runs the region’s electrical grid.

The question of what to do about Everett is complicated by its dual role in the region. It’s one of the only facilities on the east coast that can accept liquefied natural gas from big tankers and turn it into methane gas that can be used to both run power plants and heat homes. This supply of gas has traditionally been important for New England because the region has to import all of its gas and the existing pipeline system can’t always match demand.

The Mystic power plant is the main buyer of the methane from Everett. It takes about 80% of that gas, and the rest goes into the underground pipeline system where it’s used by other power plants or for home heating.

Constellation Energy, the company that owns the terminal and the power plant, has said it can’t afford to keep Everett open after Mystic shutters next year unless another buyer for its gas steps up. So far, that hasn’t happened.

The debate about whether New England needs to retain Everett is, in a sense, a microcosm of larger energy issues the region faces because of its dependence on gas. Transition off of it too quickly, and some warn the grid might face power shortages in critical moments. Delay too long, and the planet continues to cook. (Gas isn’t necessarily an ideal way to power the grid, either: It’s expensive, we have to ship or pipe it in from out of the region, and history shows it’s not always reliable.)

From left, Commissioner Mark C. Christie, Commissioner James Danly, Chairman Willie L. Phillips, and Commissioner Allison Clements of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission listen on Tuesday, June 20, 2023, at the 2023 New England Winter Gas-Electric forum in Portland, Maine.
Miriam Wasser
/
WBUR
From left, Commissioner Mark C. Christie, Commissioner James Danly, Chairman Willie L. Phillips, and Commissioner Allison Clements of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission listen on Tuesday, June 20, 2023, at the 2023 New England Winter Gas-Electric forum in Portland, Maine.

The daylong meeting covered a variety of energy-related topics, but kept circling back to a new electric reliability tool ISO New England recently unveiled, which found the closure of Everett might not have as big an impact on short-term reliability as previously assumed.

Notably, residents from the town of Everett were not invited to speak on any of the day’s panels. And the role gas and fossil fuels play in exacerbating rising seas, extreme weather and warmingwas only briefly mentioned.


A new modeling tool

ISO-New England’s recent optimism about surviving without the Everett terminal stems from a new computer model that the organization is using to assess future grid reliability as the climate changes and more renewables come on the grid.

While the ISO’s previous model essentially predicted whether there’d be enough electricity under a few cold-weather scenarios, the new tool does a better job of taking into account intermittent renewable energy sources, grid officials said. For example, a really cold day may not stress the system like it did in the past if the sun is shining bright and the wind is blowing strong.

The new model is also able to combine a 21-day weather forecast with hundreds of potential scenarios to help grid operators figure out weeks in advance if they face the prospect of an energy shortfall.

Armed with this new tool, ISO New England took a new look at how the grid might operate in a world without the Everett liquified natural gas import facility.

Much to the surprise of some federal regulators, the model showed that at least through 2027, New England may only face “limited exposure to energy shortfalls” during the winter. This assumes, however, that the region becomes increasingly reliant on oil-fired power plants to fill in gaps when demand spikes.

The biggest factors leading to this conclusion, grid operators said, were the strong growth of solar power, more certainty about the 800 megawatt Vineyard Wind project, fewer power plant retirements and less growth in energy demand than previously expected.

The tool’s analysis of winter 2027 shows that the risks to the grid are “manageable,” even without the Everett terminal, and without power from the New England Clean Energy Connect, a controversial transmission line underway in Maine, the ISO said.

A Massachusetts Department of Transportation vehicle arrives where a tree has fallen across route 53 in Pembroke.
Jesse Costa
/
WBUR
A Massachusetts Department of Transportation vehicle arrives where a tree has fallen across route 53 in Pembroke.

But van Welie of ISO New England cautioned that the newfound optimism shouldn’t alleviate all concerns over reliability.

“‘Manageable’ does not equate to ‘comfortable,’” he told commissioners. “Manageable,” he warned, could look like California last summer, when officials asked residents to conserve energy to safeguard the grid.

Still, while electricity shortfalls may be “manageable” in the short-term, the longer-term outlook remains uncertain.

“I don't think we should be taking away from those results that this is a time to relax,” said Katie Dykes, the commissioner of Connecticut’s Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. “We have a very limited amount of time to start on the path of deploying the resources that are going to be necessary for reliability and to support electrification in the next decade.”

ISO New England is currently using its new tool to assess risks for 2032 and beyond, when electricity demand is expected to really take off and many fossil fuel power plants are expected to retire.


So do we need the Everett facility?

Even with the new projections, the grid operator and other energy industry leaders said they weren’t sure if it was a good idea for New England to let the Everettt facility close.

"Can ISO make a clear and convincing need for Everett in the near-term? The answer is ‘we cannot,’" said Vamsi Chadalavada, chief operating officer of ISO New England, who put stock in the projections showing the grid could survive without the fuel from Everett. But, he added, a model is just a model, and the situation could look different in four or five years.

By early next decade, electricity demand in New England is expected to explode as electric vehicles become more popular and homeowners swap out fossil fuel heating systems with electric ones.

It’s possible that the region will have several operating offshore wind farms by then, and that we’ll have a lot more solar power and batteries on the grid, said Jim Robb, the president of the North American Reliability Council. But he cautioned against decommissioning the Everett facility before those things are up and running.

“Offshore wind [and] the expansion of solar up here — all of these things make a great soup. But they’ve got to be added in the right order, and in the right quantities, in order to make this whole thing work,” he said.

Solar panels in a field at Knowlton Farm, Grafton, Mass.
Robin Lubbock
/
WBUR
Solar panels in a field at Knowlton Farm, Grafton, Mass.

Some suggested that the energy void left by Everett could be filled by other facilities on the east coast, or that the region should be more focused on building renewable energy and transmission lines to deliver it.

But others, like Carrie Allen of Constellation Energy, which owns Everett, said that she believes the region would suffer without the extra infusion of gas the terminal provides for heating every winter.

She said she’s been hearing from local utilities that rely on the extra gas and pressure the Everett terminal provides to the pipeline system. They have “less confidence” in ISO’s predictions, she said.

Constellation Energy is talking with utilities about establishing contracts to help keep the facility open, she added, but nothing is certain

“We don’t have a lot of time. The future of the facility is not ensured,” she said.

Richard Levitan, an independent energy consultant, likened keeping Everett open to an insurance policy — albeit an expensive one. Just maintaining the facility costs about $57 million a year, and that’s not counting the cost of getting fuel delivered on big tankers.

So if the region experiences back-to-back cold snaps or if another major piece of energy infrastructure has problems, Everett may be useful to have around, he said. “Whether the region has the appetite to write that check for the additional insurance in the event that things break down is a question that has not been answered.”

Energy leaders didn’t make any decision or plans about the fate of Everett, but the consensus seemed to be that the electric and gas systems are more interdependent than is often recognized. Planning for one without considering the other could cause problems, and many experts said that someone — though who, remained vague — should study the impact shuttering Everett would have on the ability of gas utilities to deliver gas for heat.


Notable absences

While energy executives, grid officials, and regulators met in Portland, residents of Everett and environmental justice advocates who were not included as panelists at the meeting held their own press conference near the gas facility. They demanded that the community help decide the future of the Everett gas terminal.

“Everett bears the environmental burden. And Everett should have a say. The days of being just a backyard dump are over,” Stephanie Martins, a city councilor in Everett, said during that event.

Tom Philbin, the city of Everett’s conservation agent, issued an invitation to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission:

“Come on, FERC, come to Everett, have a hearing. We want you here,” he said. “We want you to hear from our residents and our elected officials. We don't want to just hear from the fossil fuel industry.”

Everett Councilor Darren Costa speaks with residents and local climate activists near the Everett marine Terminal.
Robin Lubbock
/
WBUR
Everett Councilor Darren Costa speaks with residents and local climate activists near the Everett marine Terminal.

Also absent from the Portland ballroom meeting were any discussions of the role fossil fuels play in climate change and whether a grid that relies on them is actually more reliable.

“We must choose, we are told, between the renewable energy resources we need to stabilize our energy prices and fight climate change on the one hand and a reliable electric grid on the other,” said Phelps Turner, an attorney with the Conservation Law Foundation, in a press conference ahead of the FERC meeting.

But, Turner said, maximizing energy efficiency programs, demand response, and increasing renewables on the system can lead to more reliability. And gas and oil haven’t been as reliable as many make them out to be. He cited the storm last December when the grid operator said there was a short-term power deficiency, as an example, when a few fossil fuel power plants couldn’t provide power.

“Fossil fuels are not as reliable as ISO New England keeps saying they are,” he said.

Fix the Grid, a grassroots campaign to develop a more transparent, democratic, and renewable energy system, issued a statement Tuesday calling for a more holistic approach to grid management.

They propose a public process that would analyze the role solutions like energy storage, efficiency, and transmission can take in easing reliability concerns, as well as the public health and environmental impacts of reliability policies on low-income environmental justice communities.

Federal regulators have a new office of public participation, but it remains to be seen how they or other regional leaders will address calls for more transparency and participation.

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

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