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New England Energy Grid Pushed To Brink During Recent Cold Snaps

Chion Wolf

The head of the group responsible for running New England’s power grid testified before the U.S. Senate this week. At issue was cold winter days and grid reliability.

Gordon van Welie, head of ISO New England, has said for a while now the Northeast has a natural gas problem.

On the coldest days, lots of natural gas gets diverted to heat homes. For power plants, that means high spot prices and less fuel to make electricity.

In a report released last week, ISO New England mentions “rolling blackouts” if the future grid is unable to meet winter demand. That statement was met with divergent reactions from several energy and advocacy groups.

“We’re very close to the edge in New England,” van Welie told lawmakers. “We need to find a way of relieving this constraint one way or another. Either through investment in the pipeline infrastructure, or continued investments in other sources of energy that will take the pressure off the gas pipeline, or reducing demand on the system.”

Van Welie told senators in 2013 more gas pipes were needed to solve the problem.

Several attempts to do that failed, and today, van Welie said expanded capacity is unlikely to happen in the near future.

Van Welie said renewables like wind and solar can help lessen fuel security issues. But, he told lawmakers Tuesday, he’s unsure they’ll come online fast enough to balance out oil, coal, and nuclear retirements.

“We have a gas system where the business model is completely different from the electric system,” van Welie said. “That leads to a situation where you don’t have a customer for the incremental pipeline investments needed to serve the gas generation. I think that’s a problem we’re going to struggle with for a while.”

Patrick Skahill is a reporter and digital editor at Connecticut Public. Prior to becoming a reporter, he was the founding producer of Connecticut Public Radio'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.

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