For most of January, New England has been reliving a piece of our past. Unfortunately, it’s a smoggy, polluting piece.
During the recent cold snap, more than a tenth of the electricity generated in New England has been produced by power plants that are burning oil, something that hasn’t happened for at least 15 years.
Burning oil for electricity was standard practice throughout the region for decades. It was once our most common fuel for power and as recently as 2000, fully 19% of the six-state region’s electricity came from burning oil, according to ISO-New England, more than any other source except nuclear power.
Since then, however, natural gas has gotten so cheap that most oil-fired plants have been shut or converted to burn gas, to the point that just 1% of New England’s electricity came from oil in 2018, whereas about half our power came from natural gas. This is good because natural gas produces less pollution, both particulates and greenhouse gasses, although exactly how much less is a matter of debate.
But as you probably know, there’s a problem: Natural gas is also used for heating, which gets first dibs. Prolonged cold snaps require so much gas to keep us warm that there might not be enough for power plants – at least, not at prices they’re willing to pay.
After we came close to rolling brownouts during the polar vortex in the 2017-18 winter because gas-fired power plants cut back so much, ISO-NE, which has oversight of the power grid, established “winter reliability” rules. The most important change was to pay power plants to become dual-fuel, meaning they can switch quickly between natural gas and oil, and to stockpile oil for winter cold snaps.
We’re seeing that practice in action right now, as many dual-fuel plants have switched away from gas to oil, just as was intended.
That switch is part of the reason EPA says the region’s carbon emissions have gone up in the pandemic, from 22 million tons of CO2 in 2019 to 24 million tons in 2021. That reverses a long trend caused partly by closing of coal plants and partly by growing solar and wind: New England power generation produced 36 million tons of CO2 a decade ago.
Dave Brooks has written a science/tech column since 1991 – yes, that long – and has written this blog since 2006, keeping an eye on topics of geekish interest in and around New Hampshire, from software to sea level rise, population dynamics to printing (3-D, of course). He moderates monthly Science Cafe NH discussions, beer in hand, and discusses the geek world regularly on WGIR-AM radio..
Brooks earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics but got lost on the way to the Ivory Tower and ended up in a newsroom. He has reported for newspapers from Tennessee to New England. Rummage through his bag of awards you’ll find oddities like three Best Blog prizes from the New Hampshire Press Association and a Writer of the Year award from the N.H. Farm and Forest Bureau, of all places. He joined the Concord Monitor in 2015.