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Another View -- Carl Gustin: Cold snap shows need for New England energy capacity

January 12. 2018 12:18AM

New England's governors, who for years called for increasing the delivery capacity of natural gas into the region, have largely gone silent. Now, the region is seeing the consequences, with Bloomberg reporting Dec. 27 that “spot prices more than tripled...and turned the region into the world’s priciest market.”

Natural gas prices last month reached $50 per million BTU, a level unseen since the “polar vortex” of 2013-2014, and electricity prices spiked above $300 per megawatt-hour.

Cold temperatures and inadequate pipeline capacity were culprits, just as they were several years ago, when they led to more than $7 billion in higher energy costs. No other region of the country is paying such penalties.

After encouraging natural gas pipeline development — and even proposing possible funding mechanisms involving utilities — New England governors, for the most part, have turned their attention to renewable energy.

Expanding renewable energy resources is a good thing. But wind and solar are intermittent resources that require natural gas generation to fill the gap. To ignore the severe consequences of inadequate gas supplies impacting the economic health of the region is simply shortsighted.

Someday the electric grid may be cost-effectively powered by renewable energy backed up by battery storage. For now, the needs of consumers expecting electricity around the clock, including major employers, must still be met by natural gas-fired power plants working in concert with intermittent power from wind and solar.

While energy prices have risen dramatically, there are other consequences. On Jan. 5, oil, used primarily as a back-up fuel, generated one-third of the region’s electricity. Cleaner-burning natural gas, normally accounting for about half the region’s generation, provided just 16 percent because of inadequate fuel supply. Solar and wind were providing just 2 percent.

On Tuesday, Jan. 2, electric grid operator ISO New England, citing gas pipeline constraints, reported that oil-fired plants already face operating limits because of air emission restrictions. For perspective, during the polar vortex of 2013-14, greenhouse gas emissions increased nearly 3 million tons as oil and coal plants were called upon to meet electric needs.

When prices spike as they have recently — and did a few winters ago as a polar vortex swept through the region — utilities become easy targets for critics.

Recently, two major New England utilities, Eversource and Avangrid, were accused of contributing to constraints by withholding gas pipeline capacity, which they procured to meet customer needs, from the wholesale market. The accusations demonstrated a gross misunderstanding of the role of utilities in today’s electricity and gas markets.

Today’s utilities bear little resemblance to the utilities of 30 years ago. Electric utilities, for the most part, no longer generate electricity, but are still responsible for its reliable delivery.

New England utilities are among the nation’s leaders in promoting energy efficiency and adopting renewable resources, including solar and wind generation. Eversource, for example, promotes solar energy on a large scale. It invests in major wind development with a goal of producing 2,000 megawatts of offshore wind energy in the next decade. In order to bolster basic reliability, it invests some $1 billion annually to improve and maintain its infrastructure.

Unfortunately, during high winter energy demand periods, New England utilities have no control over the price of electricity or natural gas, but often get the blame.

When New England’s governors made natural gas pipeline expansion a priority in 2013, natural gas companies and utilities responded with investment proposals. Those proposals were blocked or stalled by conflicting public policies and aggressive litigation.

It is time to adopt policies and a regulatory framework that recognize the need for both intermittent renewables and natural gas generation — while including a workable role for utilities to invest in natural gas pipelines as a hedge against price spikes during peak periods.

Doing so will help the region avoid future headlines labeling New England the “world’s priciest market” for natural gas.

Carl Gustin is a senior adviser with SalientPoint LLC, and a founding consultant to the New England Coalition for Affordable Energy.

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