ISO-New England confident of energy capacity this winter
Officials with New England’s regional electric grid operator say power supplies should be adequate this winter, but they are also hedging their bets.
Holyoke, Massachusetts-based ISO-New England once again is offering incentives to operators of gas- and oil-fired power plants to procure sufficient fuel before winter begins. The grid operator used the program last winter as a precaution if extended periods of cold weather result in shortages of natural gas available to power plants that run on the fuel.
“Reliable power system operations depends on sufficient resources, adequate fuel supplies, and available infrastructure for both fuel and electricity delivery,” Vamsi Chadalavada, executive vice president and chief operating officer of ISO New England, said this week in a statement. “The region should have adequate supplies of electricity to meet demand, barring any unforeseen resource outages or fuel delivery constraints.”
About 44 percent of the total generating capacity in New England uses natural gas as its primary fuel, according to ISO-NE officials. That’s down from 49 percent in 2015.
The network of transmission pipelines that brings natural gas into New England from other regions of the country is having an increasingly difficult time handling demand from both the residential sector and power plant operators. When periods of peak demand occur, capacity in those pipelines is at near-capacity, according to ISO-NE officials.
Natural gas utilities serving residential customers purchase secure firm contracts with providers of the fuel, which means that their supply can’t be cut off during periods of peak demand.
Power plant operators who use natural gas to produce electricity, on the other hand, have interruptible service, which means if there isn’t enough capacity in pipelines during peak demand periods, their source gets cut off.
A dearth in the development of natural gas transmission lines in New England has only made matters worse.
Since 2007, pipeline expansions in the region added about 2.5 billion cubic feet of capacity were added, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. But for the five year period from 2011 and 2015, there were no pipeline expansion projects done.
That will change this year as the Algonquin Incremental Market Project is completed.
The $972 million project, which is being done by Spectra Energy, is largest pipeline project since 2007 to transport natural gas into New England from outside the region, according to the Energy Information Administration.
The pipeline will provide an additional 342 million cubic feet per day of pipeline capacity to the New England market.
Spectra is also nearing completion of another project that will serve northeastern Massachusetts when it goes into service next June. The $63 million Salem Lateral Project will provide capacity for the Salem Harbor Power Plant, which was converted from coal-burning to operating on natural gas.
But ISO-NE’s Chadalavada said even with those two increases in regional pipeline capacity, a combination of factors make the winters of 2018 and 2019 an even greater concern than the current one.
The region will lose 1,500 megawatts of coal- and oil-fired generation next spring, he said, and it will be replaced primarily by new gas-fired generation. Without new pipelines to deliver more natural gas or the construction of liquid natural gas tanks to store it, “the situation will grow even more uncertain,” Chadalavada said.