A couple of months ago, National Grid, one of Massachusetts’ two dominant utilities, announced rate increases of a “whopping” 37 percent over last year.
Why, when natural gas prices are at historic lows, does the Northeast face double-digit increases?
New England has seen one big power plant close within the past year: Salem Harbor Power Station in Salem, Massachusetts, which went “dark” on June 1. Another major closure is scheduled within weeks: Vermont Yankee nuclear plant.
The Salem Harbor plant is scheduled to be replaced with a new, state-of-the-art natural gas plant–though it has received resistance from environmental groups who filed a lawsuit to block it and, once the suit was settled, threatened other ways to stop the project, including civil disobedience. They want to replace the planned plant with renewables.
However, an iced-up wind turbine or a solar panel covered in several feet of snow doesn’t generate electricity. And the cold days of a Northeast winter remain one of the times when energy demand peaks.
Remember last winter’s polar vortex, when freezing weather crippled the Northeast for days and put a tremendous strain on the electric supply?
Following the near crisis, Congress brought in utility executives to explain the situation. Regarding the nation’s electrical output last winter, Nicholas Akins, the CEO of the biggest generator of coal-fueled electricity in the United States (American Electric Power), told Congress: “This country did not just dodge a bullet–we dodged a cannon ball.”
We already face this winter’s extreme weather in fall. Come January, the Northeast will be down not one, but two power plants since last year–not because they had to be retired, but because of regulations and public sentiment. Without these two vital power plants, what will the Northeast do?
A few months ago, Weather Bell Analytics‘ Joe Bastardi told me: “This winter could be as cold and nasty as last year and in a worst case go beyond that to some of the great winters of the late 1970s, lasting all the way into April–though the position of the worst, relative to averages, may be further southeast.” Since then, I’ve been saying that I am afraid people will have to die due to power outages that prevent them from heating their homes in the winter cold before the public wakes up to the damage of these policies. Atkins seems to agree. He told Columbus Business First: “Truth be known, something’s probably going to have to happen before people realize that there is an issue.”
ISO New England, the agency that oversees the power grid, warns in the Boston Globe: “Boston and northeast Massachusetts are ‘expected to face an electricity capacity shortage’ that could lead to rolling blackouts or the use of trailer-mounted diesel generators–which emit far more pollutants than natural gas–to fill the gap.”
As seen at Salem Harbor, those new power plants will likely be natural gas, and building those new power plants will face challenges from environmental groups. Plus, natural gas faces cost volatility. Natural gas consumption in the Northeast has grown more than 20% in the last decade, and not one new pipeline has been built. Stuffed existing pipelines can carry no more supply.
The lack of available supply results in higher prices. In the winter’s cold weather, the gas goes to people’s homes first. Different from coal, shipped by train with a thirty-day supply easily held at the point of use, the switch to natural gas leaves power plants struggling to meet demand, paying higher prices.
These shortages in the Northeast come before the implementation of the Clean Power Plan, which experts expect to shut down hundreds of coal-fueled plants nationwide by 2016. New infrastructure needs to be built, but “not-in-my-backyard” attitudes and environmental activists will likely delay or prevent construction as they have done in the Northeast, resulting in shortages and higher costs nationwide.
Current policy may have all of America, not just the Northeast, freezing in the dark.
The author of Energy Freedom, Marita Noon serves as the executive director for Energy Makes America Great Inc. and the companion educational organization, the Citizens’ Alliance for Responsible Energy (CARE). She hosts a weekly radio program: America’s Voice for Energy–which expands on the content of her weekly column.