The following is a contributed article by Joe Curtatone, president of the Northeast Clean Energy Council
Across New England, the second half of January ushered in freezing temperatures and along with it, a reinvigorated debate about the region’s overreliance on fossil fuels like coal, oil and natural gas. New England has made significant strides in recent decades, retiring most of its coal fleet and moving to a — comparatively — cleaner generating fleet that is now largely dominated by natural gas.
That is why it may surprise you to learn that in late January, the grid mix was, in fact, very dirty with over 25% coming from oil and coal at times, and with the monthly contribution of those dirty sources totaling a staggering 13%. Over the course of an entire year, coal and oil generation is quite small, typically below 1%, as it was in 2021. But in this cold, and with gas prices far higher than in recent years, it was coal and oil to the rescue on the vast majority of days. To be clear, the system was not in an emergency condition. It was just cold.
As we move on from a year that was the hottest in Boston’s history, with New England facing the impacts of climate change at an even more accelerated pace, this is simply untenable. New England states have enacted some of the most aggressive climate laws in the country, and we have made bold and smart bets on making clean energy resources like offshore wind and solar the new backbone of our grid in the future. But as this past January demonstrates, our work to meet those ambitions has only begun.
ISO New England’s CEO was recently quoted as saying, “[t]he clean energy transition is a long journey and we cannot escape the reality that the region will be reliant on much of the existing fleet, and the fuels they utilize, for many years to come”. We fear that framing the problem that way risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. By continuing to look to fossil fuel peaking resources as a first resort rather than last, we are ignoring significant opportunities that exist today to bring all available clean resources to solve this problem. Here are some ideas to start.
First, we need to stop subsidizing fossil fuel assets with programs that don’t solve the problem. For example, we need to immediately remove the so-called Minimum Offer Price Rule that artificially limits the competitive bids that renewable resources can make into the forward capacity markets. Likewise, the wholesale market rules should better recognize the inherent limitations of fuel-constrained gas generators, a fix that New England ISO has indicated it is investigating.
Second, flexing up the generation from existing clean power assets, such as hydropower and pumped storage, is a lever we can pull today. Hydroelectricity has been helping provide clean electricity to New England homes and businesses for decades and these generation assets provide an enormous amount of local, cost-competitive and reliable renewable energy. Hydroelectric generation provides 6% of the region’s electricity today, but our pumped hydro assets in particular are under-utilized.
The Massachusetts House of Representatives has a bill (H.4348) that would better address the way offshore wind projects are procured and would help accelerate the trajectory of our climate goals. The legislation could be even stronger if it were paired with a strong storage component that would help maximize the value of offshore wind by storing and deploying it when the grid needs it most. By doing so, the region can address the imbalance in the energy markets within the next two or three years instead of the next five to ten years.
Lastly, we need to build new clean energy infrastructure. Following last year’s ballot initiative in Maine that resulted in the rejection of a $1 billion project to bring Canadian hydropower to New England via a 145-mile transmission line, we are more cognizant than ever about the challenges to building large energy infrastructure. The New England Clean Energy Connect line would have delivered 1,200 MW of renewable hydropower to the region and served as New England’s largest single source of carbon-free electricity.
The reality is that transmission lines are essential if we are to modernize our region’s aging grid and connect new renewable energy sources. Whether or not the New England Clean Energy Connect project ultimately gets built, its rejection is an immediate setback that threatens to increase our reliance on natural gas and other fossil fuel generation. We must do better in conveying the value and benefits of transmission infrastructure going forward. The New England states and ISO should be working together to consider alternative ways to build transmission that will deliver clean energy and enhance the reliability of our system.
Continuing our embrace of fossil fuel generation is not a smart climate strategy, nor is it a remotely acceptable outcome for equity and public health. Dirty facilities are predominantly found in disadvantaged environmental justice communities, and the science becomes more clear with each passing year how damaging these emissions are to people in these communities. We need to retire – not reward – our dirtiest power plants and make an aggressive push for clean energy generation to stop putting our most vulnerable residents at risk from ongoing unneeded fossil generation.
To be clear, we need to reduce the vulnerability we face as a region as a result of our overreliance on imported natural gas during winters, there is no question that this is an urgent priority. ISO NE has rightly pointed out that under extreme conditions the region does not have what it needs to keep the lights on, particularly if we are unable to access natural gas imports in a competitive global market.
We agree that reliability must remain a priority for our grid operator, but it must find ways to keep the lights on and accelerate the just transition to clean energy. We have to resist the temptation to build our entire system around a single targeted need. Concentrating our public discussions on how to solve reliability concerns using only yesterday’s dirty technologies — i.e., to get more oil and gas into the region — conflates a discrete and targeted strategy to eliminate the risks of certain extreme events, with the larger task at hand — getting to the cleanest possible grid as fast as possible.
To move beyond a time when every cold snap is punctuated by going to our dirtiest resources, first, we must break our central reliance on fossil fuel infrastructure, which has long been the prime driver of climate change. In order to stay on pace to be net zero by 2050, we must start to realize our vision of clean renewables and a fully-decarbonized, reliable grid. Yesterday’s solutions are not the answer to tomorrow’s problems. We need to remain committed to bold policies, strong incentives and to fully leverage every possible clean resource that's available –starting right now.