REPORT: New England Faces A Future Of ‘Rolling Blackouts’ As Power Plants Close

REUTERS/Brian Snyder

Michael Bastasch DCNF Managing Editor
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New England is facing an energy future of “rolling blackouts and controlled outages” by 2025 as more power plants close down and pipeline capacity continues to lag behind.

The new report by the New England’s grid operator comes after the region suffered through a frigid start to the new year that pushed up prices and strained energy supplies. It could be just a taste of the region’s future.

“Taken together, the study results suggest that New England could be headed for significant levels of emergency actions, particularly during major fuel or resource outages,” ISO New England found in a new study,

“Harder to measure are the risks to the region from brief, high-demand cold spells, which present particular logistical challenges for fuel procurement and transportation,” the study found.

ISO’s study found “retirements of power plants with stored fuel, tightening emissions restrictions, and the reliance on a fuel that may not be available when needed most are all challenging New England’s power system,” especially during extreme cold spells.

New England has increasingly become reliant on natural gas, which is mainly supplied through pipelines and liquefied natural gas imports. But without adequate pipeline capacity, power plants strain to keep the lights on.

Environmentalists have played a major role in killing pipeline projects meant to bring natural gas to the northeast. New Englanders can also thank Democratic New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo for the lack of pipeline capacity.

Cuomo’s taken a hardline stance against new natural gas pipelines, including those running through his state to New England. Cuomo’s blocked at least three major pipeline projects in the past two years.

As Cuomo mulls a presidential bid in 2020, he’s become more conscious of critics on his left, including environmentalists who oppose all fossil fuel pipelines.


“What New York has shown is a model for examining the potential impacts to clean water of pipelines,” Amy Mall, a senior policy analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council, told Politico. “They’ve done it in a way that is methodical and comprehensive and sufficiently rigorous to understand what the risks are.”

New Englanders suffered through some of the highest energy costs in the world because of political opposition to more pipelines. In the future, it could mean losing power.

The region’s grid operator found “all but the most optimistic case resulted in load shedding, also known as rolling blackouts or controlled outages that disconnect blocks of customers sequentially.”

“Load shedding is implemented as a last resort to protect the grid,” ISO New England’s study found. “All but three of the single-variable cases resulted in some degree of load shedding.”

Temperatures began to drop around Christmas, and extreme cold continued through the new year. Most of the eastern U.S. saw a top five coldest start to the new year on record, which was followed by a big nor’easter storm.

But New England’s energy risks are nothing new. The region struggled to keep the heat and lights on during the 2014 “polar vortex” and an ISO report from November warned that “pipeline constraints” would “limit the availability of fuel for natural-gas-fired power plants.”

As natural gas use increases, coal- and oil-fired power plants have retired in recent years, in part due to state and federal policies favoring green energy. Federal environmental regulations have also played a role as has the drop in natural gas prices.

New England’s Pilgrim nuclear power plant is slated to close in 2019, much to the excitement of environmentalists. But again, it will put more strain on the electric grid during episodes of extreme cold.

“Fuel-security risks may be more acute in New England than in most other regions because New England is ‘at the end of the pipeline’ when it comes to the fuels used most often to generate the region’s power,” the ISO’s new study found.

“New England has no indigenous fossil fuels and therefore, fuels must be delivered by ship, truck, pipeline, or barge from distant places,” reads the report, which only analyzed an incremental increase in pipeline capacity by 2025.

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