A report that examines statements about rolling blackouts made by regional grid operator ISO-New England, shows that sustained growth of renewables, and not more gas, will boost reliability of New England’s electric power system.
It’s a familiar story to the renewables sector, but wasn’t the conclusion initially put forward by ISO-New England, which instead claimed the region was on track for problems towards mid-2020s with its security of electricity supply and would likely face rolling blackouts in the event of winter cold-snaps.
REW spoke with Dave Ismay of the Conservation Law Foundation (CLF) to understand the situation and the forecast for New England renewables growth into the 2020s.
Ismay pointed out that some context is worthwhile. Considering a growing reliance on natural gas for electricity generation, regional stakeholders have been discussing potential fuel problems for some years, he explained.
“ISO-New England came out some time ago as supporting new gas pipeline infrastructure as a solution to fuel security before any quantitive work.”
Flash forward to January 2018, and ISO-New England published its first report on the matter, Operational Fuel-Security Analysis.
“As a rule, with its analyses, ISO typically allows the New England Power Pool, the regional power stakeholders, to participate. Oddly, we weren’t involved at all.”
To the surprise of sector stakeholders, the report, and ISO’s commentary on it, painted a picture of an unreliable grid. But scrutiny of the report revealed peculiarities.
“The owner of one of our two LNG facilities noticed ISO capped the system at one billion cubic feet per day, whereas the system can flow double that.”
Ismay also noted that for non-electricity thermal gas demand, ISO simply assumed forecasts of gas companies at face value, and projected huge consumption increases. The massive overestimation contributed to a worst-case assumption that cold winters would see regional gas depletion.
ISO-New England also underestimated energy efficiency measures going toward 2024-25.
“A broad stakeholder group believes ISO essentially got the baseline ‘reference case’ scenario wrong; correct it to what we call a Business-As-Usual (BAU) scenario, the problem vanishes.”
Other “basic work” was neglected, too — there was no energy supply risk analysis or probabilities calculated.
“To ignore that kind of basic work is concerning,” said Ismay.
Cautious of speculation, Ismay suggested that a priori assumptions — about the need for new gas pipelines — perhaps contributed to ISO’s conclusions.
“They sent the message of a crisis that only gas can solve. It’s just not accurate; actually, more gas creates more problems. We become more dependent and forego diversity and resilience.”
BAU scenario incorporates assumptions that the states will continue along trends of successful renewables programs and achieve legislatively mandated clean imports — factors that ISO neglected to varying extents.
“The problem literally drops to zero on all axis of the analysis.” – Dave Ismay, Conservation Law Foundation
“It’s crying ‘the sky is falling’ to claim that in 19 of 23 scenarios we will have rolling blackouts, because zero of those scenarios were very likely. The corrected BAU baseline demonstrates that clearly.”
For instance, Massachusetts State legislature passed the Energy and Diversity Act of 2016 requiring clean wind and hydro imports from Canada, and 1,600 MW of offshore wind off the Massachusetts coast under contract by 2027. In all, New England is anticipating 500 MW in new wind capacity (400 MW offshore and 100 MW onshore) over the next seven years.
“When those resources are input into ISO’s model, they diversify the energy mix in a way that Europeans are already demonstrating: renewable diversity, both in space and of type, is incredibly reliable.”
The re-interpretation of ISO’s study isn’t alone in its conclusions. Ismay described a Massachusetts Attorney General commissioned study from November 2015, that concluded “there’s no reliability problem though 2030 so long as we continue to pursue our national leading energy efficiency and renewable programs.”
So what does this experience teach us?
For one: new pipe infrastructure is a hammer to swat a fly, as Ismay put it.
“It would be very expensive and harm our ability to meet climate goals,” said Ismay, highlighting the additional problem of creating stranded assets given legal obligations to shutter fossil fuel burning plants.
“All things being equal, the reliability of the grid decreases as our reliance on gas-fired power plants increases.”
Ismay concluded: “This is a good reminder of the value of diversity in generation sources and the value it brings to customers and the grid beyond the climate. We have our lowest priced electricity markets ever; a new boost to economy; and a clean, reliable grid. That’s a lot of value from renewables in places that advocates often fail to mention.”