The above clip is taken from the draft Regional System Plan from ISO-New England, the folks who run the six-state power grid. There’s a big conference in Boston today discussing the issue of how to deal with all the changes – mostly the growth of solar/wind and the arrival of endless, cheap natural gas due to fracking, but also growth of computers and Internet systems – that have upended the boring old electric utility industry.
It shows that in 2016, oil-fired power plants had enough potential output (“capacity”) to produce one-fifth of the region’s total electricity output at any given time, yet over the course of the year actually produced less than one percent of the total electricity (“energy”) that we used.
Oil once fueled more than a third of New England’s electricity but these days oil plants are so expensive to run that they are shut almost all the time. The only reason they aren’t all mothballed entirely is that ISO-NE bribes the plant owners to keep fuel on hand so they can be turned on if an emergency arises, like the polar vortex. Many gas-fired plants are also dual fuel, meaning they can use oil if necessary, which keeps the fuel from disappearing entirely from our power sector.
I’m a little surprised about nuclear, which generated a whopping one-third of our total electricity over the course of 2016. Nuclear plants around the county are shutting, including Vermont Yankee in 2015, because they can’t financially compete with gas-fired plants, but that doesn’t seem to be the case with Seabrook and Pilgrim plants. However, it’s hard for nuclear power plants to ramp up and down (something that gas-fired plants can do relatively easily) so maybe this just reflects the fact that they have to keep churning out electrons, no matter what, until they go bankrupt.