New England has more than enough power production to meet its electricity needs this winter unless it is hit by a series of extreme events, according to the organization that runs the region’s power grid.
Even if extreme cold hits, said ISO-New England, the region would need slightly less than 22,000 megawatts of generation, compared with a total of 31,000 megawatts that all the power plants in the northeast states, from Seabrook Station to small hydropower dams to wind farms and solar farms, have guaranteed they can produce. The theoretical maximum from all of the region’s power plants is actually even higher, at 32,500 megawatts.
One megawatt, or a million (EDITOR: the article originally said “billion” and has been corrected) watts, is roughly the amount of electricity used by a Walmart Supercenter store, or around 650 homes.
As part of its role, ISO-NE makes predictions about electricity availability for each winter and summer, which are peak usage seasons. This practice has drawn more attention since the “polar vortex” at the start of 2014. That extended string of very cold temperatures almost led to rolling blackouts because of a combination of circumstances, including a number of gas-fired and oil-fired plants that couldn’t contribute because they didn’t have fuel.
ISO-NE has made some policy changes since then, including a Winter Reliability Program that pays oil-fired plants to stockpile fuel just in case. That extra payment is needed because oil-fired electricity is usually so expensive that it doesn’t get used in the modern power market, where at any given time the power provided by the cheapest plants is used first, and as a result many plants had stopped keeping a supply of oil on hand.
As it has done for years, ISO-NE warned about the possibility of New England not being able to get enough natural gas, which fuels about half of all electricity production in the region. In winter, gas is sold first for heating, with the rest available for electricity production, but long cold snaps can occupy so much of the supply that little is left over for the power plants.
“The region’s natural gas delivery infrastructure has expanded only incrementally, while reliance on natural gas as the predominant fuel for both power generation and heating continues to grow,” ISO-NE said in an official statement. “During extremely cold weather, natural gas pipeline constraints limit the availability of fuel for natural-gas-fired power plan.”
The region’s reliance on natural gas is only expected to increase as coal-fired and at least one nuclear-powered plant shut down in coming years, largely because they can’t compete with cheap electricity produced by natural gas.
The announcement is not directly related to what electricity rates will be this winter. Those rates are set by state regulators, including the New Hampshire Public Utilities Commission, and will be announced soon. Winter rates are often higher than summer rates because of fuel costs.
The situation is more manageable than it might seem, because total electricity usage, including peak demand, has remained flat in New England for a decade, partly because of changes in the economy and partly by design.
Increased energy efficiency measures – about 1,800 megawatts of it connected to changes in the design of the market – are part of that. Less important is an increase in solar power, because wintertime peak usage happens after the sun has set – although solar power during the day does allow other power plants to use less of their fuel, saving it when demand surges as nighttime temperatures fall and heating systems crank up.
ISO-NE said that if unexpected problems arise, such as an emergency shutdown of a major power plant or if an ice storm takes out a major transmission line, it has procedures that can be rolled out. These include what is known as demand-response – in which companies and other large power users have agreed to cut their usage when necessary – and importing more power from Canada and New York.