Rolling blackouts warned as ‘last resort’ during cold snap

Global supply chain problems, closed fossil fuel plants, and natural gas delivery limits blamed




by Guy Page

This winter, fuel supply issues made worse by the pandemic may require the New England power grid to take “drastic steps” including “controlled power outages” during extreme cold weather, grid operator ISO-New England warned yesterday.

Under the most severe conditions, failure to impose rolling blockouts could cause a total shutdown of the New England power system, ISO said.

Every winter carries the risk of fuel shortages to the New England power grid, which uses natural gas for about 45% of its power. New England’s natural gas pipeline capacity is finite. When demand outpaces supply, triage is necessary. Keeping people warm is prioritized over making electricity. If there’s not enough gas to heat buildings and provide electricity, and nuclear, hydro, wind, and “backup” generation of oil and coal are inadequate, grid operators would have no choice but to impose ‘rolling blackouts’ that leave people cold and in the dark for hours at a time.

That’s been the little-understood status quo for wintertime energy contingency planning for years. December 2017 – January 2018 saw a polar vortex cold spell that, had it lasted much longer, would have required controlled outages.

But this year the risk is greater because in addition to the usual natural gas pipeline constraints, global supply chain issues related to deliveries of oil and liquefied natural gas (LNG) are placing New England’s power system at heightened risk heading into the winter season, according to at ISO New England statement.

Also, the New England power grid has lost 7000 MW of fossil fuel generation since 2013 – notably large, coal-burning plants in Southern New England. Replacing these resources has proved difficult. The closures have been pushed by advocates of renewable power projects, including large off-shore wind development – most still in the proposal stage. And underwater power cable bringing hydro power from Canada to Southern New England via Lake Champlain also was killed by renewable-friendly regulators.

“If these risks materialize and threaten power system reliability, the ISO will turn to several operating procedures to manage the grid, up to and including controlled power outages. While employing controlled power outages is a last resort, the ISO wants to educate the public that if this step were required, it would be used to protect the region’s power grid from an overall collapse.” – Gordon Van Welie, ISO-New England

Below is a lengthy, explanatory excerpt from the Dec. 6 ISO-NE press statement:

The ISO expects to have the resources needed to meet consumer demand if the winter is mild, but a severe prolonged cold snap could necessitate emergency actions if power-producing resources lack access to the fuel they need to operate.

“As we continue our work with the New England states and industry stakeholders to transition to a cleaner grid, the ISO also has to maintain real-time power system reliability,” said Gordon van Welie, ISO New England’s president and CEO. “In recent years, oil and LNG have filled the gaps when extended periods of very cold weather have constrained natural gas pipeline supplies. Higher prices globally for these fuels, as well as pandemic-related supply chain challenges, could limit their availability in New England if needed to produce electricity this winter. The region would be in a precarious position if an extended cold snap were to develop and these fuels were not available.”

Projected winter electricity needs

ISO New England anticipates demand for electricity will peak at 19,710 megawatts (MW) during average winter weather conditions of 10°F, and 20,349 MW if temperatures reach below average conditions of 5°F. These projections are both about 2 percent lower than last year’s forecasts. New England’s all-time winter peak record was set during a January 2004 cold snap when electricity usage reached 22,818 MW.

Uncertainty leads to heightened risk

Going into this winter period, there are a number of uncertainties that could affect how ISO New England will operate the region’s power system. Three of these variables include weather severity, the global price of oil and LNG that could affect storage and deliveries into New England, and natural gas pipeline constraints that occur when there is simultaneous demand for natural gas from both heating customers and electricity generators. If these risks materialize and threaten power system reliability, the ISO will turn to several operating procedures to manage the grid, up to and including controlled power outages. While employing controlled power outages is a last resort, the ISO wants to educate the public that if this step were required, it would be used to protect the region’s power grid from an overall collapse.

“Highlighting these concerns is not meant to cause undue alarm at this early stage,” said van Welie. “Rather, by identifying and sharing the conditions under which the power system would be most challenged, we hope to prepare the region that if these conditions arise, the ISO, utilities, and government officials may ask for conservation of electricity and gas usage as an early step in avoiding or minimizing the need for emergency actions.”

Weather and scenario analysis

Weather is the largest driver of energy use in New England. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is projecting a warmer than average winter in New England, though a warmer than average season does not eliminate the threat of prolonged stretches of cold weather. Climate change is making weather more volatile and harder to predict, while stimulating more severe weather. As demonstrated in Texas in February, extreme weather can exacerbate reliability risks on the power grid.

To enhance situational awareness entering this winter, the ISO compared expected consumer demand levels and other system conditions for this winter with three historical weather scenarios:

  • Last winter (2020/2021), when the region experienced no extreme temperatures;
  • The winter of 2017/2018, when, despite a forecasted mild season, all major cities in New England had average temperatures below normal for at least 13 consecutive days; and
  • The winter of 2013/2014, when the region experienced several cold weather stretches of four or more consecutive days, including a stretch of ten consecutive days at or below freezing.

The analysis assumed that there were no significant generation or transmission outages, and that fuel replenishment was limited.

Under this analysis, the ISO would anticipate reliable system operations without the need for emergency procedures with mild conditions similar to last year. Weather similar to 2017/2018 may require limited emergency procedures, while weather similar to 2013/2014 may require the implementation of all available emergency procedures. The ISO would not expect these actions to be necessary if generators are able to adequately replenish their fuel supplies and if the system does not experience any unexpected generator or transmission outages.

Emergency procedures

ISO New England’s system operators have many tools at their disposal in the event emergency conditions develop. These procedures include importing emergency power from neighboring regions, calling on power system reserves, and asking businesses and residents to voluntarily conserve energy.

In severe events, system operators may be forced to call for controlled power outages to protect the overall grid. Though a drastic step, these controlled outages would be necessary if there is not enough energy supply to meet demand. Controlled outages prevent a collapse of the power system that would take many days or weeks to repair. In the event controlled outages are needed, the ISO directs local distribution utilities, who know their systems best, to lower electricity demand in their areas.

Long-standing fuel supply issues

For the past two decades, ISO New England has raised concerns about fuel supply issues and their impact on electricity supply during periods of extreme cold weather. Constraints on the natural gas pipeline system limit the availability of fuel for natural gas-fired power plants, as heating customers are served first through firm service contracts. When natural gas is not available or is higher priced than alternate fuels, the wholesale markets will clear a mix of other resources, including resources fueled by LNG, coal, or oil. Since 2013, roughly 7,000 MW of these resources have retired or announced plans for retirement in the coming years, with nearly 2,000 MW having retired since winter 2017/2018.

Over the years, the region has tried to address the need to ensure regional energy adequacy through actions by the states, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), or the ISO, but most of these major steps to solve this risk have been unsuccessful. The ISO does not have the authority to require generators to procure fuel in advance, though resources paid through the Forward Capacity Market to be available during periods of system stress face significant financial penalties if they do not meet their commitments.

Fuel supplies this winter

New England generators rely on the delivery of both global and domestic fuel supplies to produce electricity. As the world recovers from the pandemic, global fuel supply chains are being stretched, leading to high prices for oil and LNG across the globe. These issues may limit the ability for resources in New England to replenish their tanks if they run low during the winter months. These limitations are in addition to typical logistical challenges, such as inclement weather, that can affect fuel deliveries into the region. A national shortage of truck drivers may also affect the speed at which some generators can replenish their fuel supplies, as the trucking system is shared by multiple industries, including commercial and residential heating and electric generation.

Winter wholesale prices in New England

As the administrator of the region’s wholesale electricity markets, ISO New England cannot speculate on future energy prices, but higher and volatile fuel costs typically leads to higher and volatile wholesale electricity prices. The extent of any increase is hard to predict, and will depend on a number of factors including consumer demand, weather, and the responsiveness of the fuel supply chain. The impact of these expected higher wholesale prices on residential electricity rates will vary based on different state regulations and utility and competitive supplier practices for procuring energy.

Impact of COVID-19

ISO New England continues to track the estimated impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on consumer demand for electricity. While the pandemic is having a minimal effect on peak demand, the ISO is noticing increased energy use during the day, as many former office workers continue to work remotely. This increased energy use could exacerbate fuel supply issues during a prolonged cold snap.

Pre-winter preparations

As a part of its winter operations, ISO New England routinely monitors weather forecasts and fuel supplies, including the availability of pipeline gas and expected production from wind and behind-the-meter solar resources. The ISO also surveys generators at a minimum weekly to determine their inventories of stored fuels. These surveys are combined with forecasted consumer demand and published to the ISO website on a rolling 21-day look-ahead aimed at identifying potential energy shortfalls early enough to be addressed.

ISO New England prepares short-term forecasts for the winter season, taking into account estimated contributions from all resources, including those with and without an obligation through the capacity market, to supply electricity; resource outages due to a lack of fuel or other unanticipated issues; imports from neighboring regions; and resource additions and retirements. These estimates help inform ISO New England’s planning on how to operate the grid during the upcoming winter. These forecasts also estimate consumer demand under a variety of weather conditions.

Ahead of each winter, ISO New England hosts a readiness seminar for generators to detail expectations for the coming season. The ISO also meets with industry and governmental officials to discuss the upcoming season, going over capacity and demand forecasts, as well as how the ISO will communicate throughout the season if challenging conditions materialize.

2021-2022 winter outlook by the numbers 

  • Winter peak forecast: 19,710 MW under normal weather conditions; 20,349 MW under below average conditions
  • Last winter’s demand peaked at 18,756 MW on December 17, 2020
  • The all-time winter peak demand is 22,818 MW, set on January 15, 2004, during a cold snap
  • Resources with a Forward Capacity Market (FCM) capacity supply obligation to be available: 31,397 MW
  • Total resources, including both FCM obligations and capability without FCM obligations: 34,422 MW (a generator’s maximum possible output may be greater than its FCM obligation)
  • Natural-gas-fired generating capacity at risk of not being able to get fuel when needed: more than 3,700 MW
  • All-time peak demand: 28,130 MW, on August 2, 2006

Categories: Energy

19 replies »

  1. …..Just as with the intentional introduction of Covid19 – another way of attempting to CULL the U.S. population of its oldest & most frail citizens……

  2. The “2021-2022 winter outlook by the numbers” at the end of the article makes me think the “rolling blackouts” cited in the headline are not imminent. What I am wondering, is how long will it take the Vermont Climate Council to get us into the same type of tragic situation that played out in Texas last winter ~ with or without rolling blackouts.

  3. If we have blackouts in Vermont, I hope they will be alternated between Burlington, Montpelier, Mad River Valley, and Brattleboro, cause I know I sure didn’t vote to sit in the dark with no heat when it’s -20 out! Maybe it could even be done by voting status state wide. Let the liberals suffer the results of their votes and policies. Boy Vermont would become red real quick!

    • Not all people who live in Chittenden County voted for the Progressives!! Many of is lived thru the 70’s when everyone had to get gas only on odd or even dats. Rationing. We were told electric everything was the way to go. Great we couldn’t afford it!! It failed miserably.Yet all these people know more than our seniors. Hence the mass exodus to better far off places!!

  4. This isn’t a bug of Progressivism – aka the democrat-socialist party – but a key feature of it. Strangle the supply of all kinds of things: energy; security (aka the police); agriculture; goods and services; etc. and then have the government step in to ration and allocate these things in a ‘degrowth’ economy of ‘equity’.

    • Agreed. That has been the plan all along. The truly sad part is how easily they got 50% of the population to go along with it/them.

  5. “Higher prices globally for these fuels, as well as pandemic-related supply chain challenges,”
    Let’s tell the truth. We were energy independent just a year ago, providing cheap and plentiful energy and had no supply chain challenges. STOP blaming the plandemic and realize it is the incompetence of this weak, unqualified ‘anti-America first’ regime that has brought about all the catastrophic events we see daily!

  6. Sound like an ‘Emergency” order will be needed to shutdown schools, ski resorts, state buildings, etc.. Give them a taste of what they want. — Me, I’ve got generators, wood heat and the ‘wokes’ can go spin on their nonsense.

  7. only the government screws up something that has worked fine for years. fossil fuel needs to be used to provide sufficient constant power supply

  8. Sounds like joes build it broke isn’t a winner. One more reason we do not need any molly gray moonbats in DC or another term of pete welch rubber stamping this madness!!

  9. This would be a non-issue if the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) wasn’t in cahoots with the New World Order – Build Back Better oligarchs. Hydro Quebec has all the power we need, and they’d love to sell it to us for less than half what we pay for wind and solar. But guess who one of the three PUC commissioners is. Yep. Margaret Cheney. She’s the wife of our esteemed Prog/Dem Senate candidate, Peter Welch. And, of course, Mr. Welch is currently a shaker and mover on the House Committee on Energy and Commerce.

    The game is rigged. We have crony crooks running the government. And they will indulge in more and more fear mongering, be it Covid or, now, blackouts, to maintain their power over us. One thing is clear, they could care less about garnering our respect.

    Screw ‘em.

  10. I just feel bad for all the people who moved here from California to escape the…. rolling blackouts.

  11. Damn..I remember Jimmy Carter saying the ‘USA is the Saudi Arabia of coal” back when the “experts” were predicting the coming Ice Age & all we’d need to do is “beef up” the grid and use electric heat, like Quebec does w/85% heating w/electricity vs. Vermont using 85% oil. NOW “experts” predict global warming and if we do go “Smart (beefy) Grid” then what’s to power it at night when wind dies down & solar sleeps? Granted..We MUST stop BURNING stuff & we (might) no longer BALK at underground or semi-underground houses & heat pumps IF the “Zoning Gods” will ever allow deviation from stick-built “conventional” houses. Nuclear? (extraction, processing, waste) Battery back-up @ night? (battery life, expense, non-recycleable) MORE Wind & Solar ?(see batteries)..Some say we HAVE “Zero Point Electricity” (see Tesla, the man not the Co.) now but there’s no profit(s)..No matter, we HAVE TONS of our OWN oil & gas as Trump promoted so lets have at it and, while the economy hums, tax it all & get R&D going on carbon-capture, renewables, storage, all of the above as the time-window IS closing, just not as FAST as AOC/Biden & the Brown-Shirt power-grabbing screamers would have us believe. We HAVE the technology, we have a timetable, use the “Bridges” & let’s get to the other side, and, by the way, STOP “growing” at all costs or humans WILL ruin the planet IF we don’t limit our “footprint” and go static for a change.

  12. This is a policy born of the democrat plan to electrify everything, then have the control over who has access to the energy. They have grown to dislike wood and oil as a heating source, since that allows you to keep a stash of it on hand. This is a party that is encouraging Vermont to “drive electric” knowing full well that our present infrastructure wont come close to supporting it. Think of the Californians who bought electric cars then experience electricity blackouts whenever the wind blows and are told to evacuate a fire…in their cars with dead batteries. The leftists who run New England have no clue.

  13. Wow if only we had a clean non-carbon emitting power source that could supply over 70% of our needs, was inside our state borders, paid massive taxes, and employed hundreds of local people. Oh wait! We did and the State Government set up conditions that caused it to be shutdown. I hope everyone involved freezes!

  14. NUCLEAR for us peasants and commoners – please

    Let the Elites and Avant Guarde enjoy the sun and sand of ineffective ‘electric “power SOURCES”

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