Thursday, May 17, 2018

Rolling Blackouts for New England? Angwin Op-Ed

Mystic Power Station

Rolling blackouts

Rolling blackouts are probably coming to New England sooner than expected.

When there’s not enough supply of electricity to meet demand, an electric grid operator cuts power to one section of the grid to keep the rest of the grid from failing.  After a while, the operator restores the power to the blacked-out area and moves the blackout on to another section. The New England grid operator (ISO-NE) recently completed a major study of various scenarios for the near-term future (2024-2025) of the grid, including the possibilities of rolling blackouts.

In New England, blackouts are expected to occur during the coldest weather, because that is when the grid is most stressed. Rolling blackouts add painful uncertainty – and danger – to everyday life.  You aren’t likely to know when a blackout will happen, because most grid operators have a policy that announcing a blackout would attract crime to the area.

Exelon announces plan to close Mystic Station

In early April, Exelon said that it would close two large natural-gas fired units at Mystic Station, Massachusetts. In its report about possibilities for the winter of 2024-25, ISO-NE had included the loss of these two plants as one of its scenarios. The ISO-NE report concluded that Mystic’s possible closure would lead to 20 to 50 hours of load shedding (rolling blackouts) and hundreds of hours of grid operation under emergency protocols.

When Exelon made its closure announcement, ISO-NE realized that the danger of rolling blackouts was suddenly more immediate than 2024.  ISO-NE now hopes to grant “out of market cost recovery” (that is, subsidies) to persuade Exelon to keep the Mystic plants operating. If ISO-NE gets FERC permission for the subsidies, some of the threat of blackouts will retreat a few years into the future.

Winter scenarios and natural gas

The foremost challenge to grid reliability is the inability of power plants to get fuel in winter.  So ISO-NE  modeled various scenarios, such as winter-long outages at key energy facilities, and difficulty or ease of delivering Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) to existing plants.

Ominously, 19 of the 23 of the ISO-NE scenarios led to rolling blackouts. The worst scenarios, with the longest blackouts, included a long outage at a nuclear plant or a long-lasting failure of a gas pipeline compressor.

A major cause of these grid problems is that the New England grid is heavily dependent on natural gas. Power plants using natural gas supply about 50% of New England’s electricity on a year-round basis. Pipelines give priority to delivering gas for home heating over delivering gas to power plants. In the winter, some power plants cannot get enough gas to operate. Other fuels have to take up the slack. But coal and nuclear generators are retiring, and with them goes needed capacity. In general, the competing-for-natural-gas problem will get steadily worse over time.

All the ISO-NE scenarios assumed that no new oil, coal, or nuclear plants are built, some existing plants will close, and no new pipelines are constructed. Their scenarios included renewable buildouts, transmission line construction, increased delivery of LNG, plant outages and compressor outages.

Natural gas and LNG

The one “no-problem” scenario (no load shedding, no emergency procedures) is one where everything goes right. It assumed no major pipeline or power plant outages. It included a large renewable buildout plus greatly increased LNG delivery, despite difficult winter weather. This no-problem scenario also assumes a minimum number of retirements of coal, oil and nuclear plants.

This positive scenario is dependent on increased LNG deliveries from abroad. Thanks to the Jones Act, New England cannot obtain domestic LNG. There are no LNG carriers flying an American flag, and the Jones Act prevents foreign carriers from delivering American goods to American ports.

We can plan to import more electricity, but ISO-NE  notes that such imports are also problematic.  Canada has extreme winter weather (and curtails electricity exports) at the same time that New England has extreme weather and a stressed grid.

New England needs a diverse grid

To avoid blackouts, we need to diversify our energy supply beyond renewables and natural gas to have a grid that can reliably deliver power in all sorts of weather.  When we close nuclear and coal plants and don’t build gas pipelines, we increase our weather-vulnerable dependency on imported LNG.

We need to keep existing nuclear, hydro, coal and oil plants available to meet peak demands, even if it takes subsidies.  Coal is a problem fuel, but running a coal plant for a comparatively short time in bad weather is a better choice than rolling blackouts.

This can’t happen overnight. It has to be planned for. If we don’t diversify our electricity supply, we will have to get used to enduring rolling blackouts.
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Meredith Angwin is a retired physical chemist and a member of the ISO-NE consumer advisory group. She headed the Ethan Allen Institute’s Energy Education Project and her latest book is Campaigning for Clean Air.

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This op-ed has now appeared in several websites and news outlets. Links below to the post in other publications, some of which have comment streams.
This post at Ethan Allen Institute, The Caledonian Record, Vermont Business Magazine, VTDigger, True North Reports, New England Diary  Rhode Island and New England May Get Hit with Rolling Blackouts in the Future, including an interview with me, appeared in GoLocalProv.com

Special note: My op-ed has now appeared in my local paper, the Valley News, on the front page of the Sunday "Perspectives" section.  It is always a thrill to see my work in my local paper!

Saturday, May 5, 2018

Vermont Yankee Sale: Local groups happy, CLF objects again

Almost Everyone Agrees

Entergy plans to sell Vermont Yankee to NorthStar for decommissioning.  As you can imagine, this plan has led to lots of discussions and hearings, and I have even written a few blog posts about it.

The last time I wrote about this proposed sale was right before the April 12 hearing before the Vermont PUC. (Thursday Meeting on Sale of Vermont Yankee)  In March, all parties (state agencies, Native American tribes, intervenors) signed off on the agreement between Entergy and NorthStar, as detailed by Mike Faher at Vermont Digger. (State, NorthStar strike deal for sale of Vermont Yankee).  At the April 12 hearing, supporters of the sale were clearly in the majority.  Supporters dominate meeting on sale of Vermont Yankee. (Article by Faher)

Oh, did I say "all parties" had signed off on the agreement?  Wrong. My bad. The Conservation Law Foundation refused to sign the agreement. In March, I predicted that CLF would do everything in their power to make the sale fall through.  I was right.

Sleeping Beauty

This reminds me of the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale, where fairies are giving their gifts to a newborn princess, but one fairy feels slighted.  That fairy's gift is a curse: the young princess will prick her finger on a spinning wheel and die. Another fairy partially reverses the curse. The girl will fall asleep for 100 years instead of dying.  Thus begins the story of Sleeping Beauty.

CLF is planning something similar. I don't know if they actually feel slighted, but I think they sure plan to kill the deal. If they succeed, like the girl in Sleeping Beauty, the VY power plant will be in SafStor for many many years. Sixty years. The economic development of the town will sleep for more than a generation.

The people of southern Vermont and the people of Vernon want a clean site and a new employer in Vermont. They are hoping this change will happen soon, not sixty years from now.  But when a powerful creature like CLF feels slighted, what are you going to do? A creature like that can stop time.

She pricked her finger on the spindle
Art by Anne Anderson
Lawyers and Ventures

Okay, all that was just a metaphor.  CLF is not a magical evil creature.  And it is not unstoppable.  Basically, CLF is a not-for-profit law firm (Conservation Law Foundation) and an associated "Ventures" group.

 CLF claims that the companies involved in the VY sale have not released "even a page of their contract to the public."  CLF also admits that they could have read the contract by signing a non-disclosure form, but they claim that such an agreement would be onerous and unnecessary. ( Mike Faher article in Vermont Digger Conservation Law Foundation details Vermont Yankee concerns.)

Transparency and soap

Guy Page, a frequent guest blogger at this blog, has been following the sale closely. Like me, Page cannot understand why CLF (a bunch of lawyers, after all) won't sign a non-disclosure in order to obtain more information about the sale. I will not attempt to equal Page's excellent commentary in Vermont Digger: Where most see opportunity, CLF sees only problems with VY sale.   However, I will quote him.
CLF’s knowledge of NorthStar’s plan is limited, due to its choice not to sign a non-disclosure statement protecting certain contract information. If CLF was truly concerned about transparency, it shouldn’t have soaped its side of the window.
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A side note about CLF Ventures

 Aside: I have never understood the relationship between the main CLF and their Ventures.  CLF is a not-for-profit 501c3, and they make their form 990 readily available. 501c3 organizations generally have educational or charitable purposes, which can include advocacy under the "educational" purpose.  

CLF Ventures seems to be a part of the main CLF, and it is described under the Our Focus section of the CLF website. Still, the work CLF does as "Ventures" seems pretty much like the work other law firms do for for-profit companies. For example, here is a quote from the CLF website: "CLF Ventures helps early stage companies gain access to the market through our unique blend of experience. We use private and public networks, our knowledge of the business, market, and regulatory arenas, and our understanding of key gatekeepers to help early stage companies access markets and generate revenues."

Helping companies "generate revenues"? Is this service also a part of the not-for-profit CLF 501c3?  I can't tell from their website: such services may be part of the main CLF, or not. The website doesn't make it easy to understand the relationship between the two (or maybe just one) entities, CLF and CLF Ventures. It is not transparent. End Aside.