With Energy System Strained, New England May Face Rolling Blackouts

Nov 17, 2014

Salem Harbor Power Station, formerly a coal-fired power plant, is slated to be replaced by a gas-powered plant.
Credit Henry Zbyszynski / flkr

Both of our region’s primary electric utilities have announced double-digit rate increases in recent weeks, leaving some residential customers wondering how they’ll pay an extra thirty dollars a month or more.

But beyond the rate hikes, New England is in the midst of an energy crisis. It’s facing serious questions about the future of its energy supply. Rupa Shenoy reports that if the region can't get a grip on its electricity usage and supply, residents and businesses are facing a future that may include “rolling blackouts” on days when usage is the highest.


New England is at a crossroads in its energy consumption – and those roads meet in Salem, just behind the house Linda Haley grew up in.

The tan-colored towers of the coal-fired power plant loom behind the home. Haley says when she was a child it spewed coal dust that her family would have to wipe off the counters in their kitchen. Like other 1950s-era coal and oil plants across New England, the Salem plant has closed, meaning the energy it generated must come from somewhere else. Developers want to build a controversial $1 billion natural gas plant on the same site along Salem Harbor.

“I’m really glad it’s not going to be burning coal and doing that anymore here, for a lot of reasons," Haley said. "But I also think we could use this 65 acres for something much better. “

Something better, for her, means energy produced from solar, or wind, or hydroelectric power. Haley doesn’t understand why Salem would encourage use of a non-renewable fossil-fuel resource like natural gas, when alternative investments in green technology finally seem possible.

In a way, that’s the same quandary facing the region as a whole – and right now, we’re kind of at an impasse. To understand how we got here, we have to go back a few years.

Here's an ad produced by Yankee Gas. The female narrator, speaking over classical music, says: “Natural gas is a great value for your money… and yeah, natural gas is also super reliable, more efficient, lower maintenance than oil, better for the environment, and it can do more than just heat your house. What’s not to love?”

 Natural gas was marketed as cleaner, cheaper energy for a decade. Thousands of businesses and homeowners made the switch – especially after an underground ocean of natural gas was discovered in Pennsylvania, and controversial techniques like fracking increased output. Natural gas went from supplying less than a fifth of New England’s power to one-half in just over a decade.

As the region’s reliance on natural gas increased, a big problem became more and more apparent.

“There isn’t enough pipe to carry the gas from where it’s produced into New England,” said Gordon van Welie.

Van Welie is president of ISO New England, the organization that operates New England’s massive interconnected regional power grid. He said the problem is there are only three pipelines to bring natural gas into New England from the south and west. Space in those pipelines began to run out on high-demand days. Consequently the price of natural gas in the region went up – and that’s why beginning in January some Massachusetts residential customers will pay about 33 dollars a month more for electricity. The number of people seeing bigger electric bills may grow as more utilities file for rate increases.

The lack of pipeline space is also why it’s getting tougher and tougher for New England to get all the energy it needs on incredibly high-demand days - like the coldest and hottest days of the year, when everyone’s turning on heaters or air conditioners. That’s usually between 30 and 50 days a year.

“We’re more vulnerable," van Welie said, "because the energy balance in the region is so much more constrained than it has ever been before.”

He said the problem just gets worse with every nuclear, coal or oil plant that closes, because it leaves too few power plants generating electricity. He says if the Salem natural gas plant isn’t built by 2016, projections show greater Boston isn’t guaranteed to have enough electricity on peak demand days. There are many steps ISO-New England can take if that actually happens – but in extreme cases operators may have to rely on rolling blackouts as a last resort.

Rolling blackouts is a protective technique. It's uncomfortable, but it's necessary to avoid a much bigger problem, which is being without electricity for two or three days. - Gordon van Welie, President of ISO New England

“At that point the operator loses control of the system,"  he said. "The last ditch technique of a system operator to prevent the system from going into that condition is to say ‘ok, I’ve run out of all my supply. I can’t get people to take the demand off the system – I’ve tried all of that. So now what I’m going to do is I’m going to force some demand reduction. ‘”

In other words, the operators of New England’s energy grid will have to tell utilities to use rolling blackouts  – essentially, turning the power off for a short period in one area after another. When limited supplies forced blackouts in California in the early 2000s, power companies went bankrupt and the state was forced to step in.

  “Rolling blackouts is a protective technique," according to van Welie. "It’s uncomfortable, but it’s necessary to avoid a much bigger problem, which is being without electricity for two or three days.”

Van Welie said New England can’t circumvent the crisis in time by adding green technology like wind-generated electricity because it would take too long to build the necessary infrastructure. That’s why the New England governors supported a plan to build a new natural gas pipeline into the region, one that would meet increasing demand, as well as fuel new, gas-fired plants like the one planned in Salem. But environmentalists like Peter Shattuck of the Acadia Center say it isn’t necessary, and new pipelines ultimately make the problem worse.

“If blackouts happen, it’s because we’ve allowed ourselves to become reliant on natural gas," said Shattuck. "So I think the important thing is to start pursuing the cure – instead of looking for that additional fix, for just one more fix of natural gas that maybe delays [this problem] a little bit into the next decade, when we have to get serious about kicking the habit.”

Shattuck said New England can solve its problems simply by reducing demand for energy. He suggested small changes – like increased incentives to switch to energy-efficient LED lights.

Those types of incentive and efficiency programs are already underway with growing urgency. But industry experts say, in the short-term, at least, they can't guarantee the region enough additional electricity to prevent a crisis. And even though New England’s governors have had a decade to plan a solution, they have yet to implement one.

This report begins a 10-part series about our energy system, called, “Power Source: Where People and Energy Connect.” 

Listen to other stories in this series.