OVER THE CHRISTMAS holiday, Gov.-elect Maura Healey’s call for Massachusetts to obtain all of its electricity from fossil-free sources by 2030 looked a lot like a pipe dream.
During a four-day stretch, New England power generators burned an estimated 31.5 million gallons of fuel oil to produce electricity. Normally, oil doesn’t even figure in the fuel mix.
At the moment of peak electricity demand on December 24, oil was generating 34 percent of the region’s electricity, followed by nuclear at 19 percent, natural gas at 16 percent, imports at 11 percent, and renewables (including the burning of lots of wood and trash) at 6 percent.
In Hartford on Tuesday, officials from Massachusetts and Connecticut held a hearing on the sky-high electricity rates in both states this winter. While officials explored strategies that could improve the way utilities buy electricity on behalf of their customers, many of the participants talked about the bigger picture.
New England finds itself between a rock and a hard place on energy. The region doesn’t have enough clean renewable energy right now to displace the fossil fuels that are powering the grid. And, as the Christmas holiday showed, natural gas prices are volatile because of the war in Ukraine, opening the door for dirtier fuel oil to make inroads. During extended cold spells, the region often also has trouble obtaining enough natural gas because of pipeline constraints.
Some at the Hartford hearing suggested the answer may be the addition of more fossil fuels, at least temporarily.
“I agree that we need to be very sensitive to not adding fossil fuel capacity, but at this point all things are on the table as far as I’m concerned,” said Sen. Norm Needleman of Essex, a Democrat who co-chairs the Connecticut legislature’s Energy and Technology Committee. “I’m not comfortable putting my residents at risk, and they are definitely at risk. I think we need to understand that and do everything we can to mitigate that.”
Healey wants Massachusetts to achieve 100 percent clean electricity supply within seven years, but utility officials at the hearing said it could be 10 to 20 years before New England is no longer reliant on natural gas to fuel its power plants. The Baker administration, in a recent report, said the region may not be off natural gas even in 2050.
Against this backdrop, there was an interesting dustup in Connecticut recently between two of New England’s key energy players.
First, a little history. Government-regulated utilities used to produce electricity and deliver it to customers, but in the 1990s the companies were required to divest their generation assets. Utilities continued to deliver electricity to customers under government oversight, but competition was introduced to the generation business and homeowners were allowed to buy their power from any number of suppliers. Some consumers buy direct, while others let their local utility purchase the power on their behalf.
In a commentary for CT News Junkie on December 23, Frank Reynolds, the president and CEO of United Illuminating, one of Connecticut’s largest utilities, said the system isn’t working.
“There is considerable misinformation regarding who ultimately bears responsibility for these rising costs, so let me be clear,” Reynolds said. “Electric generator supply costs have risen over 150 percent over the last three years, enriching out-of-state generators at the expense of Connecticut families. The realization of lower electric supply costs for residents has clearly not materialized: the energy market structure in the state and New England is irrevocably broken.”
Reynolds said there are a number of short-term strategies that could be used to keep prices reasonable, but suggested it may be time to let utilities get back into the energy generation business.
“In the long term, we at UI would welcome the opportunity to discuss empowering utilities to have further control over the price of generation to help mitigate these cost increases,” he said.
Dan Dolan, the president of the New England Power Generators Association, responded on Tuesday with his own commentary for CT News Junkie, entitled “Beware the Desperate Utility Company.”
Dolan defended the companies he represents, saying competition in the power generation market has increased efficiency, lowered wholesale electricity prices, and reduced carbon emissions.
By contrast, he wrote, wholesale transmission rates, the domain of regulated utilities like UI, have gone up 800 percent.
Dolan also suggested UI is already trying to get back into the generation business through a side door with the help of its parent company, Avangrid.
Avangrid is seeking to build a giant wind farm off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard. Part of the Avangrid wind farm is financed by long-term contracts with three Massachusetts utilities and part is financed by contracts with two Connecticut utilities – UI and Eversource.
Because of rising inflation and interest rates, as well as supply chain disruptions and the war in Ukraine, Avangrid has said its Massachusetts contracts are no longer adequate to finance the wind farm. It asked the Department of Public Utilities to dismiss the contracts so it could start over, but the DPU said no.
Avangrid officials have made clear that the contracts with the Connecticut utilities are equally problematic. So far, Avangrid hasn’t made any formal move to cancel the contracts, but Dolan thinks it’s only a matter of time.
“Is the Massachusetts experience the ghost of Christmas future for Connecticut?” he asked.
NEW STORIES FROM COMMONWEALTH MAGAZINE
Healey seeks reinstatement of criminal charges: Attorney General Maura Healey’s office asks the Supreme Judicial Court to reinstate criminal charges against two former leaders of the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home in connection with the deaths of 76 veterans who died during the early stages of the pandemic in March 2020. The charges were dismissed by a lower court judge, who concluded the actions of former superintendent Bennett Walsh and medical director David Clinton were not reckless. Read more.
Cabinet not set yet:: Gov.-elect Maura Healey on Wednesday named cabinet secretaries for economic development and technology, but went with an interim appointment for secretary of health and human services.
– Yvonne Hao, the co-founder of a private equity firm, was named secretary of economic development, while Jason Snyder, the chief technology officer at Harvard University, is taking over as the secretary of technology services. Read more.
– Mary Beckman, who has worked at the attorney general’s office since 2011, was named interim secretary of health and human services. Marylou Sudders, who served the last eight years as secretary, is staying on as a temporary advisor. Read more.
Legislative wrap-up: At the close of the legislative session, state lawmakers failed to agree on sexting/revenge porn legislation, but did send a number of other bills dealing with foster parents, Medicaid, and catalytic converter thefts to the governor. Read more.
As-of-right zoning: In the third installment of her five-part series, Amy Dain says the clock is ticking on implementation of as-of-right zoning for multi-family housing in MBTA communities. Read more.
STORIES FROM ELSEWHERE AROUND THE WEB
Healey gets ready to take the reins, with a set of big challenges facing her on everything from the MBTA to housing to climate change. (Boston Globe)
Newly reelected House Speaker Ron Mariano and Senate President Karen Spilka identify childcare, early education, and public transportation as key priorities. Spilka also voices support for free community college. (MassLive)
In a sharply worded letter, Inspector General Jeffrey Shapiro ripped outgoing human services secretary Marylou Sudders and the Baker administration over their handling of the Chelsea Soldiers’ Home, describing veterans there “soaked in urine and sitting in feces.” (Boston Globe)
Jack Spillane laments the dysfunction on the New Bedford City Council – which just elected a president who isn’t speaking to the city’s mayor, Jon Mitchell. (New Bedford Light)
Hardwick residents will vote Saturday on whether Great Meadowbrook Farm should be redeveloped as a horse breeding and retirement facility with an attached racetrack. (Telegram & Gazette)
Trinity Financial unveils a rendering of a four-story residential building with 74 units on the site of an auto body repair shop next to the Shawmut MBTA station. The project has faced opposition from abutters who say it is too big for the area. (Dorchester Reporter)
Kevin McCarthy is making more concessions to a group of hard-right House members in his effort to end the stalemate over the election of a new speaker, which enters its third day today. (Washington Post)
Amazon plans to lay off 18,000 workers. (Wall Street Journal)
Another complaint targets books on the shelves at Old Rochester Regional School District libraries. (Standard-Times)
The federal government rejected a grant application that would have covered half the $4 billion cost of rebuilding the Sagamore and Bourne bridges to Cape Cod. (Boston Globe)
Days before pulling new Orange Line cars from service, the MBTA sent a scathing letter to CCRC MA, the Chinese company building new Red and Orange line cars in Springfield, ripping the company over the quality issues and delayed timeline in delivering new cars. (Boston Herald)
Nearly 50 communities get $6.1 million in state funding to help them reduce their energy use. (Gloucester Daily Times)
Newly elected Barnstable Sheriff Donna Buckley ends the county’s agreement with federal immigration authorities that gave deputies authority to enforce US immigration law. The 287(g) agreement was the last such agreement that existed in New England. (Associated Press)
More than 50 people have been convicted in the far-reaching college admissions bribery scandal, and ringleader Rick Singer was just sentenced to 3.5 years in prison. The Associated Press takes a big-picture look at the case.
MassLive looks at the troubled histories of each of the 15 police officers suspended by the POST Commission.
Two veteran women TV reporters who are heading for the exits, Janet Wu and Alison King, reflect on their careers – and the diminishing coverage of politics on local news shows. (Boston Globe)
New England Public Media hires Monte Belmonte of WRSI 93.9 The River to host a new radio show and podcast with a local focus. (Daily Hampshire Gazette)
Rebecca Pratt, a Worcester-region radio personality who was a DJ and music director at WAAF in the 1990s, dies at 55. Pratt was known in Massachusetts as John Osterlind, with the on-air moniker “Ozone.”