Grid planners ‘war-game’ against blackouts caused by global fuel scarcity, less backup power, pipeline rejection
By Guy Page
With the scarcity of natural gas and fewer back-up nuclear, oil, and coal-powered power plants, New England faces the real possibility of electricity blackouts during a prolonged cold snap this winter.
Blackouts aren’t a certainty, or even a probability. But thanks to global natural gas scarcity, they’re more possible than ever.
New England electrical grid operators last week war-gamed how to avoid rolling blackouts if a prolonged cold snap strikes this winter. Meanwhile, a senior grid official told the Wall Street Journal a cold winter could spark blackouts.
What makes this winter more blackout-prone than others, grid experts say, is the huge drop in global supply of natural gas.
“The most challenging aspect of this winter is what’s happening around the world and the extreme volatility in the markets,” Vamsi Chadalavada, the chief operating officer for ISO New England, told the Wall Street Journal in a [paywalled] recent interview.
LS Power Development VP Nathan Hanson told the Epoch Times his company is stockpiling oil – a backup fuel for natural gas, which cannot be stockpiled unless first converted into liquified (LNG).
“The grid overall is in a much tighter position,” he told the outlet. “If we get a sustained cold period in New England this winter, we’ll be in a very similar position as California was this summer.”
California only narrowly averted blackouts during 100-degree-plus weather this September by begging consumers to keep thermostats at 78 degrees or more.
Despite hopes and plans to build more renewable power generation and battery backup, natural gas still fuels 53% of New England’s electricity generation. Two New England nuclear power plants have closed down in recent years. A pipeline that would have brought supply from the plentiful Marcellus shale fields in Pennsylvania and New York was turned down by Massachusetts after intense lobbying by renewable power interests, who want to see the region invest in industrial-scale off-shore wind power instead.
That’s why much of New England – so close yet so far from more plentiful natural gas just one state away – now finds itself competing for scarce, expensive natural gas with a global market equally concerned as New Englanders about freezing in the dark. Much of Vermont receives natural gas for heating from Canada, but our electricity comes from the regional grid, which is highly reliant on natural gas.
While the Deep Freeze winter of 2017-18 strained heating fuel and energy generation to the near breaking point. But no blackouts, planned or unplanned, took place. But this year could be different because of the unprecedented global demand for natural gas.
The point of the sword of keeping the lights on during a cold snap is ISO-New England, operators of the regional power grid. In a recent press statement about its war-gaming earlier this month, ISO-NE blamed limited energy supplies as the cause of controlled blackouts nationwide.
“In the past two years, four out of seven ISOs and RTOs in the U.S. have resorted to controlled outages because extreme weather led to limited energy supplies. In New England, a winter energy shortfall, which involves several days of inadequate fuel supplies in the region, would present different operational challenges than capacity deficiencies that have been more common historically and typically involve just peak hours.”
Here’s ISO-NE’s plan to avoid uncontrolled, cascading blackouts:
- Forecast a possible energy shortfall using the ISO’s 21-Day Energy Assessment Forecast and Report
- Mitigate the impact of the shortfall by urging generators to stock up on stored fuels, making public appeals for energy conservation, and other measures
- Protect against widespread and long-lasting damage to the regional electric grid by conducting controlled outages if other efforts are unsuccessful
- Keep the public, government, and energy industry informed at each stage of the emergency.
This summer, Vermont Electric Co-operative asked consumers to conserve during peak hours of a heat wave, even asking that they not charge electric cars. Green Mountain Power, the state’s largest utility, said it didn’t need to ask consumers to conserve because it had sufficient electricity from battery backup.