IN RESPONSE to Russia’s unjust invasion of Ukraine, the European Union announced it will rapidly accelerate its transition from natural gas – much of which it gets from Russia – to renewables. Reuters quotes EU climate policy chief Frans Timmermans saying, “It’s hard, bloody hard. But it’s possible.”
What does this have to do with New England?
New England also depends on the global natural gas market. As the EU cuts gas imports from Russia, it’s likely to import more gas in liquefied form from the United States. This stands to drive up both natural gas prices and electricity prices in New England. Natural gas prices impact electricity because, in addition to home heating, New England relies on natural gas to fuel the power plants that produce about half of its electricity.
Like the EU, New England is also working to transition off gas to a clean, electric economy. The urgency of climate change, together with the volatility of escalating fossil fuel prices tied to unstable foreign governments, require the region to make this transition now, not in 10 or 15 years. The region also needs more non-gas fuels to ensure the lights stay on through the winter when gas is highest in demand here and around the globe. Making this change will require the transformation of regional markets that have long locked us into fossil fuels, but we are up to this challenge.
In his February 26, 2022 column in CommonWealth, Gordon van Welie, the CEO of New England’s regional electricity market manager, ISO-New England, suggested that we can’t have a reliable electric grid powered by clean energy until new technologies come along. Van Welie cited green hydrogen and modular nuclear reactors as two key tools to ensure the region’s reliability without gas. On other occasions he has listed long-duration storage as a third non-gas option for reliability. As none of these technologies is usable now, van Welie’s conclusion is that New England must continue to rely on natural gas.
The experts, however, say such new technologies are not needed to decarbonize the electric grid until we get much closer to 100 percent renewable energy. Until then, our reliability needs can be met by more common types of resources such as four-hour energy storage, distributed resources like solar, and flexible load – which incrementally ramps up or down technologies readily available in our homes like heat pumps, hot water heaters, and EV chargers.
For example, a Stanford study published this winter concluded that batteries available now can help keep the electric grid stable, along with flexible load and demand management. The National Renewable Energy Laboratories has similarly found that flexible load “offers high value in supporting a highly electrified, renewables-based” energy grid.
Why then does Gordon van Welie still say we cannot quickly shake the region’s overreliance on gas? Perhaps ISO-New England thinks making the transition off gas is too hard for a region that’s long relied on fossil fuels, but it’s not.
Last May, when ISO-New England first proposed eliminating the so-called minimum offer price rule, which is a regional market rule that subsidizes gas power plants to stay in the market, it assured stakeholders across the region that it could remove this gas subsidy in 2023 without undue risks to grid reliability.
ISO-New England held this position right up until January, when it suddenly started lobbying for a delay to the reform so that more gas power plants could continue to stay online. It provided no data but pointed to vague potential risks to a grid where gas starts to become less common – and suggested delaying the reforms would be the easy path. But there’s nothing easy about a path that locks us into irreversible climate damage, price volatility, and over reliance on a single fuel.
If we open up New England’s markets to energy storage, flexible load, and offshore wind that blows strong in the winter, we will have clean resources that are reliable and perform well when we need them most. With these resources, we can do things that in the past seemed too hard with new confidence. The risks of not doing so are too great.
Gov. Charlie Baker and the other elected leaders of the New England states should oppose ISO-New England’s efforts to delay the market reforms the region needs to move off fossil fuels without more damage and higher costs. They should press ISO-New England to open the region’s markets further to clean electric resources like energy storage and flexible load that can help ensure reliability as we electrify our economy with homegrown renewables. These reforms won’t change the world today, but they can help change it tomorrow.
Melissa Birchard is the director of power grid reform at Acadia Center.