Grid Reliability

This post is an overview of the issue of grid reliability as we increase wind and solar. It is mostly based on documents from ISO New England.

ISO New England

The agency responsible for assuring the reliability of electric power in our region is ISO New England. ISO-NE is a non-profit corporation. It has no electric power assets of its own and it is financially tiny compared to the investor owned utilities like Eversource and National Grid.

The first of ISO-NE’s three core missions is to constantly direct the flow of electricity around the region’s high voltage transmission system. ISO-NE’s role is analogous to the role of the Federal Aviation Administration’s air traffic controllers: ISO-NE does not own any assets that generate or transmit power — just as the FAA does not own planes or runways.

We tend not to recognize the power grid as dynamic — we plug in an appliance and expect power to be there. In fact, in every minute of every day, ISO-NE is making decisions to add or subtract generating capacity from the grid and to route power among sub-regions so as to balance load fluctuations.

Since the power market reforms of the 1990s, most generating resources (power plants, wind mills, large solar farms, etc.) are owned by companies independent from the front-end utilities who deliver power to our homes. ISO-NE’s second role is to run a competitive market place in which utilities purchase power from the generators, either in real-time, one day ahead, or as long-term capacity commitments in advance of anticipated need.

The third responsibility of ISO-NE is power system planning: Looking ahead long-term to assure that power generation and transmission capacity will be adequate to meet the region’s energy needs. In this role, ISO-NE has to anticipate and respond to the decisions of both private investors driven by profitability and public policy makers driven by greenhouse gas emission reduction goals. State legislatures across the region are shaping the power markets by mandating a transition to wind and solar (see page 9 of this ISO-NE overview).

Four Pillars of Power Decarbonization

The leadership of ISO-NE has recently been advising legislative policy makers to consider four “pillars” of a successful decarbonization of electric power. (Listen to this podcast, see this presentation, or see this in-depth planning document. For counterpoint and criticism of the ISO, listen to this podcast with Conservation Law Foundation staff.)

  1. Adequate wind and solar facilities. ISO-NE grades our progress on this pillar with a yellow light — we are making real progress, but not fast enough to meet our stated emission goals. (Compare my similar take here.)
  2. Adequate transmission lines to accept power from the new renewable facilities. ISO-NE cites a $12 billion regional investment in transmission lines from 2001 to 2021 (see ISO NE Regional System Plan for 2021 at page 99) and grades the region with a green light on this pillar — apparently ahead of the curve for the moment.
  3. Adequate balancing capacity — generating capacity that can be ramped up or down on a moment’s notice to offset the variability of renewable resources. Wind and solar output is somewhat predictable, and many generators can accelerate and decelerate rapidly. The challenge is not so much technical as financial: If a generator is only going to be needed for a few hours or days in a year, it may not be profitable to keep online. The pricing mechanisms need to be in place to support those generators. On this dimension, ISO-NE grades us at a yellow light trending to red — balancing capacity can currently support renewable growth, but market adjustments may be needed to preserve that capacity
  4. Assuring energy supply in extreme weather conditions — especially in the winter. On this challenge, ISO-NE is sounding a red-light alarm. If heating need for electricity is high, but the wind is not blowing and the skies are dark, we are currently dependent on fossil-fuel generators, mostly natural gas. Yet, in these conditions, most of the available fracked pipeline gas is taken up by home heating; local gas utilities own long-term supply contracts. So, generators are dependent on spot market purchases of liquid natural gas from foreign countries. (Ironically, under the Jones Act (designed a century ago to protect U.S. shippers), we cannot take LNG shipments from other U.S. ports in a foreign-flagged vessel; and, for cost reasons, all the LNG tankers in the world are foreign-flagged. So by federal law we have to buy LNG from foreign suppliers.) With the Ukranian war on, world LNG prices have soared to the point where it is more cost-effective for us to fire up oil or coal burners — very bad from an emissions perspective and not a very safe backup plan.

Transmission Capacity — More on Second Pillar

An ISO NE study, 2019 Economic Study: Offshore Wind Integration, supports the belief that transmission capacity is not a current limitation of our off-shore wind expansion. The study found that existing south coast transmission lines could accept power from an additional 5800MW of wind capacity (including 1000MW already firmly planned at the time of the study of which 800MW was Massachusetts Vineyard Wind project; Massachusetts now is moving forward on a total of 3200MW of wind). An additional approximately 2200MW of wind capacity could be added either by upgrading south coast connections or by running underwater cables up to the interconnection point currently used by the Mystic power plant near Boston. These options appear very roughly comparable in cost — about $1 billion or more per 1200MW.

The illustration below, taken from page 6 of the study, shows the interconnection points.

Up to the 6000MW level of new wind power, the study finds that not only would transmission capacity be adequate, but spillage of power resources would be limited and significant carbon and cost savings would be realized. As additional wind capacity is added, it may lead to more energy spillage, especially in the shoulder seasons when wind production is highest and demand is lowest. A second ISO-NE Study, 2019 Economic Study: Significant Offshore Wind Integration looked at adding additional wind capacity, running from the 8000MW to 12000MW range; the second study highlights the shoulder season mismatch and also finds a 24 hour cycle mismatch: Wind power is strongest at night when electric demand is lowest. At 12000MW of additional wind capacity, the second study found that so much wind power was spilled that carbon emissions were not reduced materially below the 8000MW scenario.

While we may have an acceptable regional transmission scenario through 2030, it is clear that transmission becomes overloaded as we move towards a fuller decarbonization scenario in 2050. Currently Massachusetts’ Energy Pathways analysis (p.78) calls for 15000MW of installed offshore wind in Massachusetts alone. The Pathways analysis does not appear to fully evaluate the cost, spillage, and transmission load issues raised by the 2019 ISO-NE studies; these issues will only become more salient at higher wind capacity levels. A 2022 study by ISO-NE does address the issue of 2050 transmission load and finds that half of New England’s 9000 miles of transmission lines and a majority of the region’s 150 transformers would be overloaded by planned renewable development in 2050. As of this writing in April 2022, the cost of the necessary upgrades have not been evaluated.

Available Power Mix vs. Used Power Mix — More on Third Pillar

As we think about how much and what kind of electricity we use, the fundamental distinction to bear in mind is between (a) available instantaneous power measured in watts (or kilowatts, megawatts, or gigawatts — thousands, millions, or billions of watts) and (b) power used over time measured in watt-hours (or Wh or KWh or MWh or GWh). A 100 watt light bulb uses 100 watts instantaneously; a 100 watt light bulb left on for ten hours consumes 1000 watt-hours or one KWh.

From the perspective of grid reliability, the question is whether we will have enough power supply to consistently meet instantaneous demand — measured in watts (or megawatts, MW): We have to cover a summer air conditioning demand peak and a winter heating demand peak and we have to cover periods when wind and/or solar are unavailable due to low light and wind conditions.

From the perspective of decarbonization, the question is the fuel source mix for our power generation around all four seasons — measured in watt hours (or megawatt hours, MWh). Fossil resources can play a role in a very thoroughly decarbonized grid if they are used rarely when, due to weather or other conditions, non-fossil resources are inadequate to meet demand. They would have to be able to supply a significant percentage of the MW of power available to the grid, but since they would be rarely dispatched, they could still be only a small percentage of the MWh year-round.

Consistent with this scenario, for the next decade, we will see wind and solar providing a growing share of year-round power, while not much of the committed capacity: The table below shows that in 2021, non-renewable capacity is more than sufficient to meet peak summer demand (barring fuel shortages). In fact from a committed capacity perspective, renewables only cover 0.8% of the peak load capacity for the New England grid. “Behind the meter” roof-top solar is not counted as a grid resource and appears in the reserve computation as a reduction in net demand from the grid (reducing gross peak demand by 836MW or 3% in 2021). However, on a year round basis, wind and solar alone generated a much larger share (6%) of power from industry sources excluding “behind the meter solar” (source: compilation of five New England States from Energy Information Administration State Electricity Profiles for New England States for 2020, Full Datatable 5; see same finding for 2021 in ISO-NE statistical report).

2021 Summer Peak Forecasts from ISO New England
Net Summer Peak Demand (90/10 Probability — 90% chance this level will not be exceeded) <1>          26,711MW
Net Summer Peak Demand (50/50 Probability — 50% chance this level will not be exceeded) <1>          24,810MW
Summer Generating Capacity Supply Obligations EXCEPT Renewables<2>          29,357MW
Import Capacity Supply Obligations            1,208MW
Active Demand Capacity Resources (for example, curtail EV charging at peak need)               587MW
Total Summer Capacity Excluding Renewables (Generation + Imports + Active Demand)          31,152MW
Capacity Reserve Excluding Renewables in 90/10 case (Capacity less 90/10 Net Peak Demand)            4,441MW
Capacity Reserve Excluding Renewables in 90/10 case as % of Demand16.6%
Capacity Reserve Excluding Renewables vs 50/50 case (Capacity less 50/50 Net Peak Demand)            6,342MW
Capacity Reserve Excluding Renewables in 50/50 case as % of Demand25.6%
Summer Generating Capacity Supply Obligations for Renewables ONLY <2>               247MW
Renewables as % of all generating capacity supply obligations0.8%
<1> Net Summer Peak Demand is Net of behind the meter solar (836MW) and Energy Efficiency (2677MW);
<2> “Renewables” in this table are wind (84MW), grid solar (98MW), batteries (34MW) and fuel cells (31MW).  
Source for peak demand estimates: ISO NE 2021 Regional System Plan (page 45):
Source for capacity supply obligations: ISO NE 2021 Forecast Report of Capacity, Energy, Loads and Transmission, Tables 1.1 and 1.3.
Note that Table 1.1 also includes an estimate of Seasonal Claimed Capacity which is slightly higher than the Capacity Supply Obligations.
In the SCC data by generation type, wind and solar show a higher share of seasonal generating capacity — 3.2%;, which makes sense because they are variable and cannot
commit to meet fixed capacity obligations. They still represent much less by this MW metric than by the MWh year round metric.

These computations do not change much over the next ten years according to the ISO-NE forecasts (ISO NE 2021 Forecast Report of Capacity, Energy, Loads and Transmission) because growth of “behind the meter” solar and energy efficiency is expected to offset increased demand for power from electric vehicles and heat pumps.

Summarizing: these numbers confirm the discussion under the third pillar in the previous section — we have the capacity to balance out growing variable wind and solar generation with committed non-renewable resources at least for the next 10 years, provided that non-renewable resources remain supported financially so they remain online as available capacity even if used less and less. In the longer run, if renewable capacity becomes very large, it may be able to cover a larger share of committed capacity even in lower light and wind conditions. Additionally, we may be able to transition the balancing fueled resources to some form of renewable fuel, if the need for them is driven to a low enough level.

For a longer term view recognizing the distinction between the MW reliability perspective and the MWh decarbonization perspective, see Massachusetts Energy Pathways analysis at page 90.

The Winter Challenge — More on the Fourth Pillar

ISO-NE is an expert in balancing supply and demand. If regional power demand exceeds available power supply, they can protect the grid from catastrophic failure by turning off parts of the grid — rolling black-outs. ISO-NE is beginning to warn policy makers that we may need to create a regional natural gas reserve in the medium term or accept an already present risk of rolling black-outs in extreme weather.

Our present risk of rolling blackouts due to gas shortages in extreme weather is not primarily the consequence of our transition to wind and solar. As shown in the charts above and below, wind and solar are a tiny fraction of committed capacity at peak. The fundamental problem today is our increased dependence on natural gas, which has gone from 15% of electricity production to 53% over the past 20 years, with coal, oil and nuclear all declining. At the same time, half our homes are heated with gas. Were natural gas unavailable for purchase in the spot markets at a winter peak, the grid would show a substantial deficit of power, as shown in the last line of the chart below. Of course, the weather risks will grow if power market financial rules allow growing wind capacity to push other capacity permanently off-line.

2021-22 Winter Peak Forecasts from ISO New England
Net Winter Peak Demand (90/10 Probability — 90% chance this level will not be exceeded) <1>         20,349MW
Net Winter Peak Demand (50/50 Probability — 50% chance this level will not be exceeded) <1>          19,710MW
Winter Generating Capacity Supply Obligations EXCEPT Renewables<2>          29,662MW
Import Capacity Supply Obligations            1,135MW
Active Demand Capacity Resources (for example, curtail EV charging at peak need)               588MW
Total Winter Capacity Excluding Renewables (Generation + Imports + Active Demand)          31,385MW
Capacity Reserve Excluding Renewables in 90/10 case (Capacity less 90/10 Net Peak Demand)           11,036MW
Capacity Reserve Excluding Renewables in 90/10 case as % of Demand54.2%
Capacity Reserve Excluding Renewables vs 50/50 case (Capacity less 50/50 Net Peak Demand)            11,675MW
Capacity Reserve Excluding Renewables in 50/50 case as % of Demand59.2%
Winter Generating Capacity Supply Obligations for Renewables ONLY <2>               316MW
Renewables as % of all generating capacity supply obligations1.1%
Winter Generating Capacity Supply Obligations for Natural Gas Only15,635MW
All Winter Generating Capacity Supply Obligations less Natural Gas less 50/50 Peak DemandDEFICIT-3,644MW
<1> Net Winter Peak Demand is Net of behind the meter solar (0MW) and Energy Efficiency (2,503MW);
<2> “Renewables” in this table are wind (238MW), grid solar (13MW), batteries (34MW) and fuel cells (31MW).  
Source for peak demand estimates: ISO NE 2021 Regional System Plan (page 45):
Source for capacity supply obligations: ISO NE 2021 Forecast Report of Capacity, Energy, Loads and Transmission, Tables 1.2 and 1.4.
Note that Table 1.2 also includes an estimate of Seasonal Claimed Capacity which is slightly higher than the Capacity Supply Obligations.

Attractive backup power sources are a long way off. Hydro power from Quebec offers an important capacity increment, but Maine voters setback this approach by voting against the needed transmission line. The project would add 1,200MW of generating capacity to the New England grid. This is a helpful addition, but not transformative: In a truly crippling gas shortage, the table above projects a 3,644MW deficit. ISO-NE is working to better quantify probabilities of events at various levels of shortage so that policy-makers can make informed decisions about what risks to accept.

There is a lot of interest in battery storage, but as of January 2022, Massachusetts only had 320 megawatt hours and our 2025 target is 1000 megawatt hours — 1000 megawatt hours is enough to power Massachusetts for five or 10 minutes. (Massachusetts average year-round rate of electricity consumption was 5,708 megawatts in 2020 with peak consumption much higher.)

Reducing energy consumption through energy efficiency is an important component of the planning process, but so far not such a large component as to eliminate weather risk.

The development of renewable resources, energy efficiency (EE), battery storage, imports, and continued investment in natural gas efficiency measures will help reduce . . . risks, but are unlikely to fully mitigate the risks associated with extreme weather events that limit renewable energy production and/or cause multiple, correlated contingencies. The ISO has initiated a project to update the modeling of low probability, high impact events, including those caused by severe weather. This will allow policy-makers, regulators, and the ISO to assess the likelihood of risks and then discuss whether and how to mitigate these risks.

ISO-NE 2021 Regional System Plan, Page 12, November 2, 2021.

With our deep commitment to cutting emissions, the thought of building a natural gas reserve or expanding pipeline capacity is troubling, even if only as a rarely-used backup to increased wind and solar. In its technical planning documents and in its leaders’ statements, ISO-NE is continuing an uncomfortable discussion about present and future risks.

Summary

I am working on building my understanding on these issues. I am looking for input and would be grateful for commentary and analysis.

Published by Will Brownsberger

Will Brownsberger is State Senator from the Second Suffolk and Middlesex District.

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47 Comments

  1. If we had grid neutrality instead of just net metering, individuals would be more incentivized to overbuild solar on their properties such that we would have enough in the winter and over abundance in the summer. This would add expense to solar, but is cheaper than storage.

  2. “The project would add 1200 megawatts of generating capacity to the New England grid. This is a helpful addition, but not transformative — winter peak power demand is already over 20,000 megawatts and is expected to exceed 30,000 megawatts by the middle of the next decade.”

    This is comparing 1200 MW the Baker administration wanted to secure for Massachusetts to the peak demand for the NE ISO region as a whole. No doubt there’s still a gap, but wouldn’t a better comparison be the 1200 MW to Massachusetts’s winter peak (something like 1/3 of the region?)? Presumably the other New England state governments will be looking for hydro and storage to balance load and fill long lulls too.

      1. I don’t mean to suggest MA should hoard imports only that we must compare apples to apples when considering relative magnitudes. I.e. the total demand need for NE ISO should be compared to the combined efforts of all member state governments to increase imports into our common ISO.

        But that’s not the way to look at it either maybe. What we should compare is the 1.2 GW to projected shortfalls for 1. the winter demand (MW) peak at 6:30 or 7:30 p.m. and 2. the available winter energy supply (MHW) should the jetstream hang out in lower latitudes over a few winter weeks. I don’t know how to interpret the projections but ISO NE’s real time graphs page is informative for how the system works now: https://www.iso-ne.com/isoexpress/

        If you’re like me you’ll find that link addictive. Change the date on the system load, price (LMP), and fuel mix graphs to 01/11/2022. You’ll see there that gas and hydro can track hourly demand, making these what I think are called load following sources. You’ll also see where we had to burn oil that day but it’s not as clearly load following. I would speculate we have to use oil not to meet the gigawatts but to not run out of GWH (or cubic feet, since we’re mostly talking about gas here), since people are having to waste gas on home heating what with 1/11’s temperature having been in the single digits.

        You can see nuclear is constant. It can’t adjust to demand nor can it be easily lowered, say if we had so much wind going that that would make sense. That’s purely base load stuff. Renewables (1/4 of that is burned things actually) are variable but it’s a pretty smooth rising and falling. The swing is big, from around 1 GW to 2 GW, but nothing our present load following gas and hydro can’t adjust to.

        Getting back to what 1.2 more GW from Quebec would mean. The magnitude of hydro on these real time graphs can rise as high as 2.2 GW with gas rising to over 7 GW. Oil went up to 3 GW in the morning of Jan. 11th. So 1.2 GW right now could mean 1/3 less oil burning in a given hour or 1/7 less gas. It would be a 50% increase in the hydro we now seem able to bring to bear.

        Another thought looking at these graphs: can more wind help us retire oil burning peaker plants like the one in West Springfield? If oil is an adjustment to energy shortage moreso than demand shortage then every bit of extra renewable resource we deploy helps. Doesn’t matter how intermittent the renewable supply is as long as it can be used. Secondly, more renewables offset some demand at all times as well even with the variation. People get confused thinking of a wind lull and a single turbine. You will not find a day on these charts I think where the renewable demand contribution drops to only the garbage burning. So absent plant retirements every MWH and MW of renewable generation improves system reliability (and cost?).

        So what is the challenge with renewables? It’s purely economic, yes? Suppose we added 20 GW nameplate of wind with capacity factor of 1/3. What would that look like real time, let’s say variation between something like 5 GW and 9 GW maybe of one standard deviation wide in the normal distribution? In that case gas plants won’t be able to sell nearly as much gas and some of their owners will want to shut some down. There will be times when ISO will say no and have to pay them off to keep running (as now is being done with Merrimack station I think, there’s a technical term for this payoff). If this is a problem I think we can’t understand its nature without know the figures involved and who pays.

        Finally, looking at those graphs you see a large hourly range of system load. Seems like there ought to be more opportunities we could find to flatten that load across the day with the right technology and incentives. The big spike is when people get home from work. If people have EVs later, can we ask them not only not to charge but to plug their car in to supply power to the grid from 7:30 to 8:30 and then charge the rest of the night?

        Okay, now I am really long winded, better stop here.

  3. This is brilliant and I have to read it a few times. What I wish for as this is the future is for a good deal on joint a farm for power or installation of solar. The solar companies want 25 year tieups. Seems a but long when payoffs are at maybe 10 years.

  4. 2021 Summer Peak Forecasts from ISO New England
    2021-22 Winter Peak Forecasts from ISO New England

    I like forecasts but since we can’t forecast rain, snow, hurricanes etc with any long distance accuracy how are we forecasting the above listings I would postulate that we need to review the historical Summer and Winter peak….say from 2016 thru 2020 to really get an accurate picture Am I just old fashioned,,,relying on historical factual info vs potential forecasts??? Just sayin…..for a friend ;;==))

  5. Thanks for the education. Learned a lot.

    Are there state laws that make energy price manipulations a felony? I’m thinking of the California price manipulations of 2000-2001. Electric generation plants were taken off-line for “maintenance” to decrease the supply in the face of increasing demand. As I recall, Enron played a role. https://www.cbc.ca/news/business/enron-settles-california-price-gouging-claim-1.568597
    for example. I haven’t had time to research substantially this issue historically, but I would hope that if we do not have state laws on the books, it’s possible that these behaviors will be repeated, possibly in the Commonwealth.

    1. I’m not familiar with all applicable laws, but there certainly many general criminal fraud statutes that could be relevant in both state and federal court. Enforcement is probably the challenge — I have not heard of holes in the legal framework.

  6. Thank you for this information. I have been wondering who is thinking about the real future electrical needs of this area.

    I agree with Nels Nelson above. I have always thought that breaking up the grid with more individual home solar is really the best way to go. All new construction should be built to generate it’s own power. I know, it’s a fantasy and unfortunately doesn’t make money for the shareholders in all the companies who make money off of providing people with power.

    I am really worried about the switch to electric cars, especially the big electricity-guzzlers that I guess most Americans want. I can’t imagine that the strain on the system isn’t going to be big. If more people provided their own power with solar, it would take that off the table for the grid.

    Also, I am really confused about the push for heat pumps. In new construction, maybe, although it is still completely grid-dependent (so I guess big companies like it). But I don’t understand how my 100-year-old home with gas steam heat would be retrofitted. It just doesn’t make sense to me. And I know I couldn’t afford it.

    I think we need a plan that encompasses many different paths to energy efficiency and independence, not only on the grid but individually too.

  7. It is so great that we have a legislator like you that takes the time to explain these important things to us.
    It was foreseen from the beginning that we needed to have energy storage capacity to balance the variability inherent in renewable energy sources (until we master fission). We have had Northfield Mountain (pumped hydro) for a long time, but that is not a storage solution we can use anywhere. I would encourage investment in green hydrogen and/or potential energy storage to go beyond what we can do with batteries.

  8. I see we still fall into the “no nukes ever” category for emotional reasons, even though by the numbers nuclear power is one of the safest, most effective decarbonizing options available today as countries like France (70% nuclear) and China (just built the first commercial molten-salt reactor) have discovered. I know we , as Americans, cannot let ourselves make science-based decisions, we’ve proved that so many times over the last two years, so there’s no surprise here, just disappointment.

    1. Where do you propose to store the waste from nuclear reactors? I don’t know what France does, and China will tell its people to accept whatever disposal facilities it sites wherever it sites them, but in the U.S. the last plan for storage was given up on some years ago. Note also that mining uranium is not environmentally friendly; ISTR that France has deals to get its fuel from far away but that that option isn’t available to us.
      I do wonder where we’d be if thorium had been developed as a power source rather than uranium, but shifting over now would take a long time.

      1. @ Charles — You pose a good question.
        There’s some good information here about waste storage
        https://www.nei.org/fundamentals/nuclear-waste
        There’s also a good (if somewhat tongue in cheek tone) here:
        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4aUODXeAM-k&t=804s

        Re Thorium reactors, yes, sigh, you can thank Admiral Hyman Rickover, the father of the “Nuclear Navy” who ditched perfectly safe Thorium reactors (and fail-safe Thorium Salt Reactor research) in favor of Plutonium Breeders he needed for his weapons and ships. Apparently, we could only afford one track of research and we had the choice of reactors that were “Small and Safe” or “Big and Dangerous”, but produced weapons grade Plutonium (Woo Hoo!). For political reasons we chose the later, cos, it was the 1950’s and Red was menacing.

        While you are correct, it will take time to convert to Thorium (and as I said, these reactors are just starting to come online, so we should wait a couple of years and let the Chinese debug them), but it’s a place to start and it should be part of the decarbonization plan (which it’s not). The operating profile of nuclear can help supplement the less dependable wind and solar sources, especially when coupled with energy storage solutions (hydro or battery-based).

        The alternative is to build more gas-plants. In fact, in the US, retired Nuclear plants are ALWAYS replaced with Gas plants that emit even more radiation than the Nuclear plants they replace (good article here: https://e360.yale.edu/features/why-nuclear-power-must-be-part-of-the-energy-solution-environmentalists-climate)

        Re France — Their reactors are of the “old style” (water/breeder). To manage the nearly 1150 tonnes of spent fuel it produces every year, France, like several other countries, decided early on to close its national nuclear fuel cycle by recycling or reprocessing spent fuel. In doing so, the French nuclear industry can recover uranium and plutonium from the used fuel for reuse, thereby also reducing the volume of high-level waste. Reprocessing is carried out at the La Hague reprocessing plant and at Marcoule MOX fuel manufacturing plant. Since the start of operations in the mid-1960s, the La Hague plant has safely processed over 23 000 tonnes of spent fuel — enough to power France’s nuclear fleet for 14 years. (https://www.iaea.org/newscenter/news/frances-efficiency-in-the-nuclear-fuel-cycle-what-can-oui-learn#:~:text=Reprocessing%20is%20carried%20out%20at,nuclear%20fleet%20for%2014%20years.)

        Like many science-based decisions, Americans choose instead to fall back to half-truths, refuse to do their homework, depend on non-metric-based anecdotes or depend on scare tactics as facts.

        All I’m saying is that based on the options offered above, the authors of the policy have fallen into this typical trap and we’ll be paying for it for generations.

  9. I think we should at the personal level add some grid independence. I am not personally planning any kind of electric heat options without off-grid capability. Too much dependency on the Energy utility industrial complex. Just had too many bad experiences with power outages in the past. I will pass on the EV option until they can be charged off-grid directly from solar panels.

    1. If you have rooftop solar, an EV, and the sun is shining, then your solar panels will be effectively charging your car directly. The catch is that without battery backup the grid needs to be on, but that is a very rare event. Not a valid reason for ‘skipping’ the EV option. OR, purchase an EV which can be used to power your house when the grid is down; they exist and are becoming more available all the time.

  10. An alternative to a backup gas supply is to use oil as a backup for those short periods of time in a winter peak. At one time, many of the turbines in new england were dual fuel, using either oil or gas. Not sure how many still are. However, dual use turbines with oil for a winter peak should be considered.

  11. Does the report(s?) you cite cover the prospect of piped hydrogen? The Boston Globe had a story on this yesterday suggesting it was beginning to be seen as feasible, where I’d previously read that hydrogen was too corrosive(!) to be run through natural-gas pipelines. Producing hydrogen is not cheap now because the market for electrolysis rigs is so small, but the cost of equipment can be expected to drop just as the costs of solar and wind have dropped. Hydrogen, if feasible, has advantages: it’s cheaper than most methods of storing electricity directly (batteries, reverse-pumping stations) for when renewables generate local or short-term surpluses, it apparently can be sent through existing gas lines (meaning that if enough is generated it can reduce the requirement for new trunk lines for electricity, and it’s not a greenhouse gas like methane (the primary component in natural gas) — any spillover either recombines with the oxygen it was split from or leaves the atmosphere entirely. It can also be used for transportation — filling a hydrogen tank is much faster than recharging a battery — but developing the network to support this would take time.

    1. Hydrogen is a plausible way of storing energy, has some advantages, but it would/will need quite a lot of new infrastructure. Probably not a viable solution for New England’s electricity grid during this decade, but maybe in 2030s or 2040s as we get more serious about squeezing the fossil fuels out of our energy mix. In shorter term, there is a project being built to use hydrogen to store energy for California’s electric grid, using a convenient salt dome in Utah to store large amounts of hydrogen inexpensively.

    2. I have no expertise, so tell me: Could water heated by renewable energy be piped into defunct fracked wells and recirculated through turbines as a backup source? As a bonus, the water would pick up soluble chemicals left by fracking that might be extracted in the process, keeping them from leaching into groundwater.

  12. Will, thanks for this very clear explanation of a pretty complicated issue. An important thing to keep in mind is that today a lot of New England’s low-carbon electricity is coming from nuclear power plants in other states, but those power plants are quite old and expensive to operate so they might get shut down at some point, potentially aggravating our electricity and greenhouse gas problems. I suspect the legislature is going to have to get involved again in several areas: 1) to do even more to force rapid construction of the wind turbines and perhaps also needed power lines, since the whole Mass climate plan presumes huge quantities of low-carbon wind power is really available to charge EVs and heat houses in addition to providing much of our current electricity needs. 2) maybe to get involved in the question of how to pay companies to keep sufficient power generation available on stand-by to handle the fluctuations in supply and demand, or equivalently to build sufficient energy storage for the same purpose 3) to incentivize building owners to switch away from natural gas for heating (might involve subsidies or loans for installing better insulation and windows, or rules and subsidies related to shared ground-source heat pump systems?).

  13. Thank you for this really helpful post!

    I just listened to this great podcast about networked “geothermal”*. https://www.volts.wtf/p/volts-podcast-audrey-schulman-and?s=r

    I saw in the post the other day about the climate bill that there is some funding to study these systems. Obviously I am no expert, but it seems like a great puzzle piece to address “The Winter Challenge” you discussed above. I am looking forward to seeing what these studies come up with, and to keeping my eye on the Eversource pilot program in Framingham: https://www.framinghamma.gov/3416/Geothermal-Pilot-Program

    One thing I will say is that I share your concerns about building on or upgrading existing gas infrastructure because it will just tether us to fossil fuels for a longer time. We need better alternatives to nudge the utilities in the right direction.

    *Put this in quotes because I learned that true geothermal has to do with energy from radioactive decay deep in the earth and the heat that is extracted from the new networked systems is from shallower ground and comes from the heat stored in the ground from the sun!

  14. would like to see the past 2016-2020 grid results vs the potential forecasts for 20-21 and then enter into a discussion

    1. could not find my earlier comment which I spent some time on. Why did the moderator disapprove it??

  15. Let’s not be too hasty to write-off the “Jones Act.” It protects seamen and maybe give it an update to bring us back in line. Make the US ships that ply US to US routes nuclear and ~carbon neutral.

  16. Excellent summary of the issue Will, among the best I’ve read anywhere. My hope is that we can improve energy storage (availability, capacity, cost) so that we can store excess renewable electricity and release it when needed (e.g., a cold winter night when the wind isn’t blowing). If we can do that, we won’t need much fossil-powered ramp-up capacity. A lot of smart people are working on innovative energy storage solutions.

  17. What a great compilation of information. As far as LNG, we should build some pipelines to where we can benefit from the frack gas that is now available in the US. Our goal should be to reduce our need for that gas over the years, but in the short term it is greatly needed and it is counterintuitive to get the LNG from foreign companies when it is plentiful here. Also it is dangerous to Boston Harbor to bring in those LNG tankers.

    I recently sent a letter to the head of the MWRA asking them to consider putting solar panels on the top of the covered water tank in Weston if it can handle the weight. I think it should be able. Also I think there should be more incentives for all businesses and residences to put solar on roofs where possible. Just my two cents.

    1. Cool, but besides being a fertilizer, ammonium nitrate is an explosive. Just saying. So what has been done with this clever invention and who will able able to do it?

  18. Time for the Feds via FERC to override the nimbys and get the Northern Pass transmission line built. Lots of power available from Hydro Quebec yet still stalled by politics.

  19. I agree, excellent summary Senator. It’s encouraging that you have such a comprehensive understanding of this complex, dynamic issue.

  20. Thank you for the in-depth report. It’s important information. Unless I missed it in the report, I don’t think there was any mention of geothermal. Geothermal technology for heating and cooling has been used for close to 50 years; and apparently it’s getting a new and more serious lookover. It’s very clean, installations have a long life, and it’s a steady source. Here are 2 pieces on the subject.
    https://www.vox.com/recode/23024204/geothermal-energy-heat-oil-gas-wells
    https://www.energy.gov/energysaver/geothermal-heat-pumps

  21. Wouldn’t it be better to start supplementing the electrical supply with alternatives to see how well it works than to think in terms of replacing the current system and being in trouble when it doesn’t turn out to be what we expected, like Texas did. We should move into this slowly before we jump in and find out the hard way.

  22. Great summary.

    Not owned by an electric utility, such as Eversource, aka NSTAR or Boston Edison, the first “independent” power generating company in Massachusetts was built in Bellingham in the late 1980s. It was connected to the grid under an interconnection agreement negotiated by Eversource. The transmission line was at 345KV connecting Eastern MA with Connecticut. The independent generating company could not find engineers to “synchronize” its generation to the grid (each cycle at 60 cycles a minute). Eversource offered its engineers to synchronize the connection.

    The current question, as always, is where is the power generated and where is it used? Secondly, what is the likelihood that on time, sufficient generation is available for all the loads, the delivery of power being limited by the capacity of the specific transmission lines? This is a significant, complicated, and perhaps state-of-the-art mathematical network problem.

    Solar & wind, and likely heat pump for cooling and heating will likely become a significant energy over oil and gas. All those new sources and uses and limited transmission capacity, is a significant analytic question: what do we build, where and when? Though I don’t know the current abilities of the grid manager aka NEPOOL, the “Independent Operator” is the current locus for that discussion.

    Once again, the question of management knowledge, effectiveness, support, and performance arises.

    The further issue is siting of energy facilities. Gas rights of ways and facilities, as we powerfully know, is controlled and authorized by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. The FERC regulates and has the power of eminent domain. See the example: the Everett natural gas pumping station conflict in Massachusetts.

    Electric Transmission ROWs are state authorized and regulated: by the Energy Facilities Siting Council of Massachusetts. The state-control is the reason, principally, that two recent proposals for transmission lines to Canada on top of others earlier, were prevented by the politics and interests of states on the transmission ROW as proposed. These proposals would have provided a great deal of added water power. That water power would have been available now to displace fossil and soon to back up solar and wind.

    That New England is almost an “island” with respect the rest of the grid in the US, perhaps the transmission solution would come from some form of participatory and joint action among the 5 New England States. This, a fraught political discussion.

    Or, if the recent customer energy savings brochures of Eversource are a precursor, from forward thinking utilities themselves. Is that what former Senator Kerry suggested just yesterday? You might consider a conversation with Joseph R. Nolan, President and Chief Executive Officer of Eversource Energy.

  23. Sorry, but Will is all about compulsion:
    You WILL buy an electric car even if the price is exorbitant.
    You will install solar panels and get leaks in your roof.
    You will switch to electric heat even though it’s very expensive.
    Your new house can’t have a gas hookup. Tough luck.
    You will install an expensive heat pump.
    You must get a Covid vaccination.
    You must wear a mask.
    Your child in 2020 must (per order of Gov. Baker) get a flu vaccine even though there is no flu pandemic, and it made no sense whatsoever.
    You will pay a graduated income tax someday even though Massachusettst voters have repeatedly rejected it for decades. So I support a millionaire’s tax as a first step because everyone wants to tax rich people.
    Maybe we’ll pass a wealth tax too. Take that.
    We MUST let in millions of illegal aliens even though it puts enormous pressure on the housing market, especially rents.

    You WILL do these things, like it or not.

  24. Thank you for sharing this information. I’ve had solar panels on my roof for 8 years and I don’t regret it for a minute. On the contrary, I absolutely love it. I wish we had less expensive battery storage options. As for EVs and charging – agree that it makes sense to charge them when solar is available. Some of the schools in the area have recently been updated with solar and charging stations. We could ask our local governments to do the same with other public facilities and fast charging equipment.

  25. Senator Brownsberger,

    Thank you for your concise, but comprehensive review of the grid issues. It is comforting to know that our legislators are educating themselves on these complex issues. It is compelling for elected officials to follow the lead of the environmental community and its insistence that wind and solar are the answers.

    I believe nuclear energy must be part of the energy plan for the following reasons: nuclear reactions are a powerful source of energy that does not produce CO2; it can be used as backup electrical generation needed to support renewable energy sources which by their nature are intermittent; nuclear plants can be easily incorporated into the grid; the impact on the land is minimal; the technology is well-known and has been safely in use for the last 50 years.

  26. Commonwealth Fusion Systems, in Devens, is currently building a demonstration Tokamak based on “high temperature superconductor” magnets for fusion plasma confinement, and will follow this with a pilot scale fusion power generation plant, scheduled to be on-line some time in the 2030s. When this happens, the offshore wind (OSW) and photovoltaics (PV), along with the necessary gas-fired backup plants, will become obsolete. The necessary build-out of transmission capacity to bring OSW power to shore, and all of the onshore industry built up around OSW will be obsolete AND not amenable to repurposing. The investment in renewables will largely become “stranded assets” (a concern expressed in the 2050 Decarbonization Roadmap with respect to retiring natural gas facilities). Instead of the massive investment in infrastructure that will no longer be necessary, the wiser approach would be to invest in new nuclear plants to serve in the interim until fusion is ready to take over. There would be no need for offshore transmission build-out, or onshore port facility development, and the OSW/PV workforce would not also be “stranded”. There would be no prospect of rolling blackouts, no concern that the effects of climate change could alter the efficacy of OSW/PV and no likelihood that a hurricane could devastate vast swaths of OSW pylons. Fusion power is now at hand and renewables will be set aside. In the meantime, we have a zero-carbon resilient, plentiful power source. The lead-time for “permitting” nuclear power plants should be substantially reduced if a standard design is used (2 AP1000 plants soon to turn on in GA). Waste from nuclear power plants is very compact, and easily handled/stored on-site, and has never resulted in harm. Permanent storage is largely a political matter (Carlsbad, NM was only too happy to welcome the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant).

  27. There is much to discuss about options and possibilities … and fantasies. However, leaving all of that aside for the moment, if the stated object of this discussion is education about grid governance and reliability, essential reading is Meredith Angwin’s recent book Shorting The Grid.

  28. Thanks for sharing all the information. I think it is important to push on multiple sources of energy to have a diversified capacity to meet demand under variable conditions. Nuclear is a good base load that makes up a base of production and should be retained. It would be great if we could significantly increase hydropower from Canada as another base load to make up a consistent source of reliable power. It’s really great that we have reduced reliance on coal and oil to almost zero in the future as they are by far the most polluting and no longer that cost competitive source of fuel. Gas needs to be part of the capacity solution because modern co-gen plants are extremely efficient, and responsive to changing demand in minutes so can follow changing production from renewables. We should push on getting more behind the meter solar using incentives. Adding PV and solar is need to get us to 2050. Maybe fusion and other sources will appear but there are still technical and commercial challenges and we cannot wait to see how it turns out in 15 years. Batteries/storage should be improved and an increasing part of the mix as they become more cost effective. Hydrogen is more likely to be long term and maybe can be used at power plants to displace some of the natural gas but unlikely to work as a distributed energy source. We need to continue to push to get more EVs, heat pumps, while increasing requirements for efficiency of gas vehicles. Alternative to heating with gas should be explored on an accelerated basis. We need to stop pushing so much gas through many leaky distributed gas lines. If you don’t keep pushing on this while retaining varied sources of energy you come up with supply constraints which will hold us back getting to the future we need.

  29. Meredith Angwin’s book Shorting the Grid recommended above. A few excerpts below. In particular, we should be looking beyond ISO-NE, the professional operators of our grid, to the control and sometimes destructive interference from NEPOOL and FERC, much of it from behind closed doors.
    Selected Excerpts

    p. 82: FERC regulations of RTO’s are much heavier than of non-RTO areas. RTO’s are not markets.

    p.88: “Power Purchase Agreements do not have to be made public, and probably more than half of electricity is sold by those agreements.”

    p. 89: “Plants often get capacity payments when they are not generating power.”

    p. 91: Setting the clearing price; capital costs not allowed, but outside sources are.

    p. 92: “High bidders set the clearing price in daily auctions.”

    p. 97: “RTO markets punish reliable plants and support unreliable plants.”

    p. 100: “Capacity payments make Natural Gas a winner.”

    p. 107: “NEPOOL wanted FERC’s approval for a new rule that would ban press members from joining the Participants Committee.“

    p. 200: From the National Bureau of Economic Research, “ … a 1% increase in the share of fast-acting fossil technologies is associated with a 0.88% increase in renewable generation capacity in the long run.”

    p. 208: “Since the wind turbines get outside funding, they can bid in at zero or negative.”

    p. 212: “The laws of nature are not repealed by these renewable-mandate laws.”

    p. 224: Warren Buffet, “… subsidies are the only reason to build wind farms.”

    p. 240: “The RECs are symptomatic of energy policies so complicated that few people understand them, including many of the politicians who voted for them.”

    p. 357: “Negative pricing by plants that get subsidies distorts markets.”

  30. An echo to what others have said here: Thank you to Senator Brownsberger for initiating this forum and the open discussion which has resulted. Thanks also to many respondents for their on-point comments, especially to Rich Carlson who pointed out – twice – that we have an unfortunate tendency to make policy choices which are not informed by good science.

    Speaking of science, a quick summary from hundreds of hours of research:

    1. An all-renewables solution is a fantasy. For modern energy requirements, Wind and Solar are technologically backwards generators compared to power plants which use compact fuels (no storage necessary) and compact generating equipment. Whether coal, oil, gas, or nuclear, they provide full power on demand, and can be located wherever we need them.

    2. Imaginary storage solutions are no answer to this problem. Even if we had such solutions, we would still have to overbuild our Renewables by several multiples because of the low capacity factors of Wind and Solar. In other words, even if we saved all the energy generated by a solar farm, we would have to build out 4 Gigawatts of generating capacity to get out 1 Gigawatt on average.

    3. Wind and Solar make enormous demands on land and material, and we have no good solutions for the huge volumes of end-of-life waste that are generated.

    4. Common fears of Nuclear are way overblown. Today’s nuclear power generation technology is actually very safe. Modern developments, including Small Modular Reactors, promise further advances in utility, economics, and safety.

    5. The so-called Waste problem is actually an argument for nuclear. Nuclear is the only supplier that sequesters all of its waste, and the volume is very small. If reprocessed, it becomes miniscule. After supplying 70% of their power for decades from nuclear, and reprocessing the fuel, the French are able to store the remainder in small silo vaults within one building. Even if we don’t reprocess, deep geological storage has already been demonstrated to work at our own WIPP facility, unfortunately restricted to weapons systems waste only. Similar facilities are being planned in several other countries.

    Much more can be said about all of these matters, but this forum is not the place for a lengthy presentation.

  31. A State of Connecticut legislative committee held a long information gathering session earlier this year delving into these grid issues in a detailed way. The guest experts included Meredith Angwin, mentioned above, as well as Gordon van Welie, CEO of ISO-NE. Massachusetts could benefit from a similar session.

    https://youtu.be/NDSKYM9zIQQ

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