New England Power grid operator says reliance on natural gas will last decades
CRANSTON — New England will continue to rely on natural gas for power generation decades into the future even as it transitions to renewable sources, the head of the nonprofit agency that operates the regional power grid said on Friday.
Speaking at an invitation-only energy forum, Gordon van Welie, president and CEO of Independent System Operator New England, said the region will not be able to wean itself off natural gas — which already fuels half of its power generation — any time soon.
“The gas problem is going to live with us for a long time,” van Welie said.
The forum was jointly organized by two organizations: the New England Coalition for Affordable Energy, which is sponsored by the American Petroleum Institute; and Rhode Islanders for Affordable Energy, a coalition formed by construction unions, chambers of commerce and some of the largest power consumers in the state in support of a fossil fuel-burning power plant proposed in Burrillville.
Other speakers included a representative of natural gas pipeline company Enbridge and Invenergy, the Chicago company behind the Burrillville project known as the Clear River Energy Center. Carol Grant, commissioner of the Rhode Island Office of Energy Resources, also spoke on one panel.
Even though energy usage in New England has declined slightly in recent years, ISO-NE expects demand to start growing again as more people switch to electric vehicles and use electric-powered heat pumps, van Welie said.
When asked if wind farms, solar arrays and new battery systems would be able to meet the additional needs, van Welie said they wouldn’t because they’re intermittent sources of power.
“That’s not going to happen,” he said. “For the most part, it will come from natural gas.”
He did not mention the 1,000-megawatt Clear River project, which would primarily burn natural gas. The $1-billion project is nearing the end of the state permitting process, with a decision expected early next year.
The proposal has suffered delays and setbacks, including Invenergy’s failure to sell half of its power output at forward capacity auctions held by ISO-NE. Opponents to the project have pointed to the results as evidence that the power grid doesn’t need the plant.
In response to questions after his talk, van Welie said that such a conclusion can’t be drawn from the auction results.
“I think they’re conflating things together that shouldn’t be conflated together,” he said.
Each auction is a snapshot in time, he said, securing resources for only a single 12-month period three years before it’s needed.
“The system we’ve set up will always ensure there’s enough capacity to meet the needs three years in the future and as that demand forecast changes, we’ll adjust it,” he said. “You can’t take one point in time and link it to a decision that was made in a completely different point in time.
Things can change fast in the power grid, especially if an old plant is retired.
“It’s much harder to predict what resources will be out there beyond the three-year time frame because it’s going to depend on how the forward capacity market fares in any year,” van Welie said. “If you ask me what’s going to be there four years out, I’m not going to be able to answer that question.”
ISO-NE recently disqualified the Clear River project’s second unit from the upcoming auction in February that will tie up capacity for the 2021-2022 supply year. According to Invenergy, the decision was based on permitting delays that have plagued the project.
When asked about the decision, van Welie declined comment.