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Business and Economy

With natural gas supplies disrupted, citizens and businesses may be asked to reduce energy use this winter

Heating Fuel
Robert F. Bukaty
/
AP
In this Wednesday, Jan. 14, 2015 photo, Paul Dorion, a driver for the Downeast Energy, prepares to deliver heating oil to a home in Portland, Maine. New England, the region most reliant on heating oil, is getting a huge windfall this winter from the big drop in oil prices.

The top official running New England's electricity grid says the region faces a "precarious" winter, in which consumers and businesses may be asked to limit their use of electricity and natural gas to help avert extended brownouts or worse.

Gordon Van Welie, CEO of the Independent System Operator of New England, or ISO-NE, also says that the region will need more hydro-electricity from Canada to help the transition to a greener grid, whether it gets here via Central Maine Power's contentious energy corridor, or by other routes.

With national and international supplies of the natural gas that fuels the majority of New England's power generation disrupted by the pandemic and other issues, Van Welie says requests for citizens and businesses to reduce energy usage, and even forced brownouts, are real possibilities this winter.

“I think we're feeling more vulnerable,” Van Welie says.

That despite predictions of a relatively mild winter. Extended cold snaps can happen any winter, Van Welie told reporters during a briefing Monday. He pointed to what happened in Texas during its extended outages early this year.

“What happened in Texas changed everything. We've not rested well since the February event… we know that we are operating close to the edge here in the wintertime, in particular here in New England, we've known that for a long time,” Van Welie says. “I think that what Texas drove home for me is that with almost 15 million people living in this region need to understand is that we are in a precarious position particularly when we get into cold weather."

New England's grid is more robust than in Texas, he adds. But the reliance on natural gas here can escalate quickly when supply chain issues coincide with a cold snap, because fuel dealers are required to deliver first to homes that heat with gas, and power generators are second in line.

This season, ISO-NE is planning to issue energy supply advisories along with 21-day weather predictions and may call on the public to curtail use of both electricity and gas before a cold snap arrives, in order to avert a crisis. ISO system administrator Peter Brandien says the agency may issue advisories similar to summer-time heat-wave messaging that come from utilities.

"Turn down your thermostat so that you're not using as much electricity or gas to heat your homes, don't do as much laundry, try to minimize the amount of cooking you're doing," Brandien says.

He adds that while business energy use declined some early in the COVID-19 pandemic, when workers were sent home en masse, that's no longer the case, with workers at home driving up daytime energy use, even while many offices are now open for business as well.

"[In a cold spell] I don't want to go to Hartford or Boston or something and see all the buildings all lit up, particularly at a time when we're asking for conservation,” Brandien says.

During the briefing, CEO Van Welie repeatedly referred to the role that electricity from Canadian hydro-dams can play as a kind of battery for the New England grid, as it becomes more reliant on other renewable energy, such as wind and solar, which, unlike hydroelectricity, are also intermittent depending in when the wind is blowing or sun is shining.

That's part of what Massachusetts was seeking, he says, when it contracted for a big slug of electricity from Hydro Quebec. He says he was disappointed that Maine residents voted to kill the CMP power corridor that would bring that electricity into the grid. But if it doesn't survive that and other legal challenges.

"I think we'll find other paths,” Van Welie says. “The one thing we're going to have to do is recognize is we're going to have to spend more in order to get these transmission line sited. Because the most part of the objection to the transmission is people don't want to see these lines.  And so if you bury them then you remove that objection but then of course you incur a much higher price tag on the line."

Van Wylie notes, though, that there were a number of objections that were very specific to the CMP line. And overall, he adds, Canadian hydro alone can't solve New England's problems, particularly with electricity use expected to grow radically because governments are moving the economy towards "decarbonization" and increased reliance on renewable electricity sources.