By Guy Page
Three winters ago, New England narrowly avoided a regional power blackout such as struck Texas this week. What happened here three years ago and what is happening in Texas is strikingly similar.
As of this morning 3.3 million Lone Star State customers remain without power. People, chimpanzees and lemurs have died as a result of the deep freeze. Politicians, grid operators and utilities are pointing fingers at each other in an effort to escape blame from an angry public demanding to know how this happened and who to blame.
Events in New England three years ago (late December, first week of January) and this week in Texas unfolded in three simple steps:
- Unexpectedly cold weather struck the region. Homeowners turned up their thermostats. The available supply of natural gas for other uses dwindled. Normally, that wouldn’t be a problem, except…..
- Output dropped unexpectedly from another, large source of electricity. In Texas, wind power output was cut in half, victims of frozen iced-up wind turbines. Three years ago, storm damage knocked out a key transmission line from Pilgrim nuclear power station in Massachusetts. (Wind, solar, and hydro were and still are relatively small contributors, especially in deep winter.)
- Natural gas alone couldn’t make up the difference. Asked to 1) provide more heat than expected and 2) deliver far more electricity than expected, natural gas delivery systems and power plants simply couldn’t get enough fuel to do both.
So, why didn’t New England suffer blackouts like Texas? The first answer is a reminder: we almost did. According to ISO-New England, the region’s electricity grid operators, it was a near thing. It didn’t happen because 1) temperatures rose sufficiently just before available fuel ran out and 2) New England had enough backup, backup power generation in the form of oil and coal-fired generating plants. With an assist from the weather and enough backup, backup power, New England squeaked through without the population at large knowing just how close they had come to freezing in the dark.
Some would say the lesson was not lost on New England’s grid operators. Vermont utilities, example, can now “manage” power load by controlling the use of residential heat pumps and home batteries. Utilities can remotely manage power consumption when it threatens to overwhelm supply, as this recent letter from Green Mountain Power, Vermont’s largest utility, shows:
“On February 12, Green Mountain Power will manage one or more of your enrolled devices beginning at 5:00 pm to help lower energy use during peak demand. The event will last 3 hours. You are always in control and can opt out of this event by manually adjusting your device during the event window.”
That’s how utilities manage demand. They ask for voluntary reductions, and if necessary they remotely access modern conveniences like heat pumps and home batteries.
In a crisis, utilities must also boost supply. And that’s where New England energy policy starts to get dicy. The Pilgrim plant and some other “baseload” generators are permanently closed now, victims of grid energy purchasing policies and the relentless push by the renewable power industry to (for example) build large, offshore wind farms. Supporters of offshore wind are longtime critics of nuclear power and are among the fiercest opponents of developing more hydropower transmission capacity from Canada.
It may seem counterproductive to close existing power generators when the region is also focused on “electrification” – that is, replacing gasoline powered transportation with electric vehicles, and replacing oil furnaces with electric heat pumps. Nevertheless, both of those trends are being pursued simultaneously. Will the New England grid have the resources to stand another polar vortex as struck the area three years ago, and is now inflicting misery on Texas? That’s the plan. Let’s hope it works.
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