Superimposed on a tennis court-sized board at ISO New England is a real-time simulation of the region’s power grid.
Roughly 350 generators across the six-state region are connected by a dizzying number of interconnecting lines depicting high-voltage power lines. A series of numbers and symbols tell employees pertinent information, including how much electricity is needed versus how much is being produced from Caribou, Maine, to Stamford, Conn.
“The ISO was created to ensure that the New England power system can deliver competitively priced electricity, whenever and wherever it’s needed,” said Gordon van Welie, president and CEO.
Indeed, the regulators, who work inside a security-guarded, fenced-off facility in Holyoke, Mass., are responsible – in the most basic terms – for making sure Rhode Islanders and all New England can turn on the lights.
In more complex terms, the independent nonprofit supervises day-to-day operations of the region’s bulk power system, administers competitive wholesale electricity markets, and oversees planning to ensure system reliability for now and the future.
Van Welie is concerned about the future. He sees retiring fossil fuel-burning and nuclear power plants throughout New England being replaced by gas-fired power plants, which he believes will jeopardize future fuel security, as the demand for natural gas could exceed gas infrastructure capacity. The dynamic, he worries, could threaten ISO New England from performing its basic responsibility of keeping the lights on.
The issue is also the nuanced backdrop for ongoing energy debates in Rhode Island, where gas advocates and environmentalists are fighting passionately over whether to allow new pipelines, permit a 1,000-megawatt, gas-fired power plant in Burrillville or wait for a larger renewable energy supply.
HOW WE GOT HERE
Rhode Island business owners and electricity customers became acutely aware of the nuanced world of power pricing after the winter of 2013-14.
The so-called “polar vortex” rolled across the Ocean State, bringing frigid temperatures, and along with it a fuel problem.
While electricity demand peaks in summer months, when businesses and households rely heavily on power-gobbling air conditioning, powering electricity isn’t typically a problem.
The demand is much lower in winter, but other market forces come into play.
“Pipeline constraints pushed up prices for both natural gas and wholesale electricity to record highs,” van Welie said about 2013-14.
Natural gas generates 95 percent of Rhode Island’s net electricity, according to 2015 figures from the U.S. Energy Information Administration. But it’s also a heating source.
Businesses and households burn natural gas to keep warm. It’s typically not an issue, but if temperatures fall to extreme lows, heating systems burn greater volumes of natural gas, leaving less for power plants to generate electricity. The capacity is available, the fuel is not.
The shortage forces utilities to buy more expensive fuel off the spot market, and the cost is passed to business owners and other electricity customers.
Businesses large and small in 2013-14 stomached big spikes in costs, adding to the price of what’s already among the most expensive electricity in the United States. The total value of the wholesale electricity market in New England for three months during the 2013-14 winter was $5 billion, which is 22 percent greater than the $4.1 billion cost of the wholesale market during all of 2016.
Public outcry over soaring electricity bills forced National Grid PLC, the state’s largest utility, to alter its billing cycle to try and stabilize cost spikes.
To date, electricity prices have remained relatively stable since that winter and are projected to fall this summer. But van Welie maintains this is because the past couple of winters have been mild, and thinking in the short term can be risky.
“Low prices and mild weather mask fundamental challenges that could derail the region’s progress,” he said.
Regulators have tracked this issue since January 2004, when a so-called “cold snap” evoked the same concerns about market and system performance. Two years later, the organization created a yearly auction, called the Forward Capacity Auction, designed to increase reliability standards, as power generators are allowed to bid for capacity contracts projected to be needed in three years’ time.
Since 2013, the auction has resulted in planning for the creation of 3,000 megawatts of new generation, and there’s much more in the pipeline, which helps to offset an estimated 4,200 megawatts that has retired or will retire in the next five years. But most of the new power plants bidding to come online – including Invenergy LLC’s proposed 1,000-megawatt power plant in Burrillville – generate electricity using natural gas, which van Welie predicts will further exacerbate the fuel problem.
For van Welie, the issue seems clear. But not everyone agrees.
“It’s unfortunate this is where the conversation is, and we’re demonstrating that it’s incorrect. … We’ve pointed out in the past that other data from ISO New England belies [van Welie’s argument],” said Caitlin Peale Sloan, a Boston lawyer at the Conservation Law Foundation Massachusetts.
“[The gas industry] wants a 365-day increase to gas supply as the solution to a problem that lasts only a few cold days,” Peale Sloan said.
Despite strong political backing, the push to expand gas pipelines in Rhode Island and the region isn’t going well for gas advocates.
The most notable project, based on size and cost, is the Access Northeast Project led by Texas-based Spectra Energy Co., which last month was acquired by Enbridge Inc. The project hit a major roadblock last fall when the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled against a proposed funding mechanism that would have allowed utility companies to charge ratepayers to pay for the development costs.
The SJC ruling had a chilling effect on what had been a concerted effort throughout New England. In January, National Grid in Rhode Island rescinded a similar proposal being considered by the R.I. Public Utilities Commission.
Environmentalists rejoiced at the time, saying the argument for pipeline expansion is overplayed.
“The gas industry has found it important to amplify certain conditions that happened during the polar-vortex winter,” said Peale Sloan. “It seized on what people perceived as a crisis in 2013-14, which was a very specific situation during the coldest part of the coldest winter.”
The CLF, which fights against several fossil fuel-related projects throughout the region, advocates for a more targeted approach, pointing to existing – and already paid-for – infrastructure, including liquefied natural gas, and alternative fuel sources, kept on-site, to cover instances of natural gas shortages during the coldest winter days.
The group also sees more potential for reductions on the energy-consumption side, made possible through more energy-efficiency measures and augmenting “demand response,” which incentivizes businesses and other energy users to decrease usage during peak demand.
At the same time, renewable energy resources are advancing.
Rhode Island grows its solar generation each year. Last year it also successfully turned on the nation’s first offshore wind farm.
There’s also a large amount of hydropower electricity in Canada, and onshore wind capacity is abundant in Maine.
Mass. Gov. Charlie Baker last August signed an energy bill requiring National Grid and fellow utility Eversource to buy as much as 1,200 megawatts of renewable energy, which is likely to come from northern New England and Canada.
The law also compels utilities to sign long-term contracts with offshore-wind developers for up to 1,600 megawatts.
The renewable sources could help diversify the energy mix and offset demand, effectively reducing the need for so much natural gas. But more contracts and better transmission systems would still be needed should southern New England – scant of native resources – reap the benefits of the north.
“Just as there are concerns about future fossil fuel plant retirements, there is also a tremendous growth of renewable energy in the region, including the recent state law in Massachusetts,” said Jerry Elmer, a lawyer with Conservation Law Foundation Rhode Island.
Van Welie, along with many in the energy world, agrees renewables are the future. But he says the resources are still at least 15-20 years away from becoming the majority resource in New England, which – with better energy-storage technology – might allow natural gas to become a backup source. Until the region reaches that benchmark, he argues, gas and the expansion of gas capacity needs to be part of the solution.
“The key to long-term independence from fossil fuels is renewable energy backed up by widespread, grid-scale storage,” he said. “But storage will be needed at a level that won’t be economically or technically feasible for many years.”
So, does that mean gas-fired power plants are the answer for now in Rhode Island and the region?
The impassioned debate is best exemplified by Invenergy’s proposed power plant in Burrillville.
Invenergy originally decided it wanted to site its proposed power plant in Burrillville largely because of ISO New England’s capacity auction.
When planning for future capacity needs, ISO separates New England into zones based on transmission infrastructure, among other factors. It became clear in 2014 and 2015 that capacity in Rhode Island’s zone, which included southern Massachusetts, wasn’t enough to meet demand.
The auction, however, is designed to protect from such shortfalls, and incentivizes generators to build in constrained zones by offering higher prices. Invenergy jumped at the opportunity.
“The [auctions] are designed to send those signals to companies saying, ‘This is where you should be looking,’ ” said John Niland, business-development director at Invenergy.
Burrillville also made sense because northern Rhode Island is where the Algonquin pipeline, which runs 1,129 miles from the New Jersey-Pennsylvania boarder east to the edge of New Hampshire, dips into the Ocean State. And without having to build a lot of new pipelines, an Algonquin-sized pipeline is what’s needed to effectively fuel a 1,000-megawatt power plant.
“You try to find areas where you have a sizeable pipeline and an electrical transmission, so that’s what led us to the site in Burrillville because it has both,” Niland said.
But while the location may be perfect for Invenergy, the project has met with a lot of pushback, both locally and from gas opponents from all over the region.
The rift between gas companies and opponents has resulted in numerous protests, rowdy public hearings and arrests. In 2015, M. Peter Nightingale, a physics professor at the University of Rhode Island, and Curtis Nordgaard, a pediatrician from Massachusetts, locked themselves to the front gate of existing Spectra Energy’s compressor station in Burrillville. The duo was subsequently arrested.
Last May, Nightingale and six others were arrested creating a human blockade outside the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in Washington, D.C. Nightingale, currently awaiting trial for his second arrest, called his actions “physics outreach,” because he feels like he needs to convince people how disconcerting the physics are behind climate change.
“The people who are hurt by these effects are the exact people who can’t afford it,” he said. “I’m going to continue to do things like this because I can afford it; I’m not living paycheck to paycheck, so I feel like I have a responsibility. … It’s like breaking down the front door of a building on fire. Yes, the door is broke[n], but we get to the fire.”
Elmer, who’s been fighting the Invenergy proposal since day one, argues that while capacity was indeed needed in 2014 and 2015, ISO New England last year altered Rhode Island’s zone to include more generators from current and future power plants in the Boston area and northern Massachusetts. The rezoning resulted in the area having an excess amount of contracted capacity.
“The auction showed that the Invenergy plant is not needed in the specific subzone that Rhode Island is located, and it is also not needed in all of New England,” Elmer argued. “Even if you backed out 100 percent of what ISO bought from Invenergy last year, there’s still a surplus.”
When asked about the new zone, Niland pointed to the issue of retiring power plants in the region.
“There’s a fair amount of capacity that ISO deems to be at risk of retirement,” he said. “The [demand] isn’t going away, so if the generation goes away, you can’t support that zone. So, what are you left with? You have to put something there.”
Elmer says any assumptions made beyond the three-year capacity auction, however, are nothing better than conjecture.
Thus, even though Invenergy sold one-half of its projected generating capacity at the February 2016 capacity auction, it failed to sell the second half of its potential power output during this year’s auction on Feb. 6, again raising questions about the need for the power plant. The R.I. Energy Facility Siting Board continues to mull its decision whether to approve the power plant, but signaled last month a decision isn’t likely coming anytime soon. Elmer estimates it could take another year, which wouldn’t bode well for Invenergy.
The company is supposed to start selling power to ISO New England beginning June 2019, and while it could delay that obligation for a year, executives last year estimated it could take 2 1/2 years to build the power plant. Approval for the plant at the beginning of 2018 would not allow the needed time to complete it and begin production by the middle of 2019 based on the company estimates.
Intertwined in the debate between gas advocates and environmentalists are the politics and government policies involved in decisions that impact the entire state and beyond. Gov. Gina M. Raimondo has been wary to take a strong stance on such a polarizing issue, largely deflecting when asked whether she supported the expansion of pipeline capacity and gas-fired power plants.
“There is currently no pipeline proposal in front of us,” she said through a spokesman. “If a proposal is put forward, [I] will expect that the R.I. Office of Energy Resources analyzes it through the lens of affordability, reliability and its potential environmental impacts.”
In the past, however, New England governors, including Raimondo, have supported gas-pipeline expansion. Indeed, Raimondo in 2015 reiterated support for an interstate agreement that enables regional procurement guidelines for infrastructure projects, including natural gas pipelines and power plants.
“Cost-effective investment in new natural gas infrastructure and the continued integration of clean-energy resources are important to resolving these [regional] challenges,” the New England governors said in a joint statement in 2015.
And the issue crosses political lines, as more recently, R.I. House Minority Leader Patricia Morgan, R-Coventry, wrote a letter to President Donald Trump, a fellow Republican, asking him to provide federal support for natural gas infrastructure.
“A proposed and much needed pipeline [Access Northeast] has been bogged down for years during the [former President Barack] Obama administration, presumably for climate change reasons,” Morgan wrote to Trump. “Rhode Island families, businesses and I need your help moving this project to fruition.”
The push to expand fossil fuels, however, may run contrary to clean-energy goals designed to improve the environment.
The General Assembly in 2014 passed the Resilient Rhode Island Act, which set lofty emission-cutting goals of 85 percent by 2050. Van Welie says Rhode Island’s and other state’s emissions-cutting goals are obtainable with the expansion of natural gas infrastructure, as the cleaner-burning fossil fuel will replace coal- and oil-fired plants, which release more carbon.
Elmer, a strong proponent of the renewable energy goals, however, says Invenergy, if approved, could burn gas for more than two decades, while new gas pipelines could last more than 50 years. Should the state and region move in that direction, he says, the clean-energy goals will not be met.
“It will be completely impossible for the state to meet its short-term, medium-term and long-term carbon-emission reduction goals if [Invenergy] or any other fossil fuel-fired plant is constructed in Rhode Island,” said Elmer, the Rhode Island-based CLF attorney.
His concern was echoed by J. Timmons Roberts, endowed chair, Ittleson professor of environmental studies and sociology at Brown University, who testified at an EFSB hearing.
“If the R.I. Energy Facility Siting Board grants the requested permit for [Invenergy], the challenge of meeting the state goals on emissions reduction will go from difficult to impossible,” Roberts said.
But OER Commissioner Carol Grant disagrees, saying in an advisory opinion about the power plant, “Development and operation of the project is consistent with state energy policies, and will not hinder Rhode Island from meeting its [greenhouse gases] reduction targets under the Resilient Rhode Island Act.” •