PROVIDENCE — On the heels of a Globe report in which the region’s energy officials warned that potential shortages could prompt the need for controlled, rolling blackouts across New England this winter, some clean energy advocates have called on the region’s power grid manager, ISO New England, to “stop crying wolf.”
“To say these warnings have been said [by ISO New England] for the last several years is an understatement,” said Greg Cunningham, a vice president and director of the Conservation Law Foundation’s Clean Energy and Climate Change program, on a call Wednesday. “Their warnings are proof that they are aware of the region’s over-reliance on fossil fuels. But what are they doing about it? They’ve been on notice to make changes for years.”
“It’s a climate solution and electricity reliability problem,” added Cunningham, who said there has “never” been an electricity blackout in the region since the power grid has been managed by ISO New England. “ISO New England is falling down on both.”
This year’s back-and-forth between ISO New England versus clean energy and climate activists began around late August when ISO New England said multiple actions would need to be taken to “ensure energy adequacy in New England throughout the clean energy transition.” That includes securing and stabilizing the imported liquefied natural gas supply chain, in addition to accelerating the development of clean energy resources. ISO, a nonprofit, says older fossil-fuel power plants are being retired faster than new clean energy projects are being developed and completed.
“Until the region has fully transitioned to alternate fuel sources to provide this long duration balancing service, we must preserve our existing gas infrastructure,” said Gordon van Welie, the president and CEO of ISO New England, in the company’s Aug. 29 statement.
On Thursday morning, after seeing claims by the Conservation Law Foundation in the Globe, ISO New England spokesman Matt Kakley, said that the Foundation “continues to peddle inaccuracies and mischaracterizations about ISO New England and the regional power system, while offering nothing by way of solutions.”
“To say that since widespread outages haven’t happened before they won’t in the future is baseless, specious, and illogical,” Kakley said. He said the Aug. 29 statement pointed out how the region needed to find “clean options to the challenges we face if the clean energy transition is to be successful.”
“We work every day to ensure the region’s power system remains reliable as we move towards the cleaner power system we all want,” said Kakley.
But Cunningham said ISO New England says the region needs to increase its natural gas supply each year, which is not working alongside state climate policies. “Their fallback... is part of the problem,” he said.
Each state in New England, other than New Hampshire, has climate laws that require states to reduce their carbon emissions over time. Rhode Island became the first state to require that 100 percent of the state’s electricity be offset by renewable energy by 2033 when it passed the Act on Climate earlier this year. Massachusetts and Connecticut have had similar laws on the books for the last 14 years.
Darrèll Brown, a vice president of the Conservation Law Foundation in Rhode Island, wrote in a commentary in The Providence Journal on Monday, that ISO New England’s van Welie has been claiming since 2005 that “we could freeze in the dark because we don’t have enough natural gas or power plants to keep the lights on each winter.”
“ISO is using this mythical threat not only to push for increased fossil fuel usage, but also to throw roadblocks in the way of what we need most — more clean energy,” continued Brown. Brown wrote that van Welie claims green energy infrastructure would “take too long to build.”
“But he’s been making that claim for the last 17 years — a period when ISO could and should have made real progress incorporating green energy into the grid,” Brown wrote.
Rhode Island has developed a thoughtful climate policy, Cunningham said, and the state should look forward to “what’s next and what it could do to meet its climate goals.”
“Their relationship with ISO New England is a piece of it,” said Cunningham. “But ISO continues to cry wolf around these blackouts and not actually do anything about it.”
When asked what a blackout could mean during prolonged frigid temperatures in New England, Cunningham said the effects could be “catastrophic” for safety, public health, and on the economy. On Sept. 8, the five commissioners of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission held a daylong meeting in Burlington, Vermont, to discuss the problem. New England has limited ways to bring in natural gas, which is the dominant fuel for home heating and provides more than half of the electricity in the region, as previously reported by the Globe.
“We’re going into this winter basically crossing our fingers and hoping,” Federal Energy Regulatory Commission commissioner James Danly said at the event.
Andrew Grande, a spokesman in Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza’s office, said the city’s Emergency Management Team is already monitoring and planning for this scenario along with storms that could knock out power this winter, including warming centers and emergency shelters in partnership with the American Red Cross. Local universities are considering the implications of potential rolling blackouts this winter, as area hospitals prepare to bring fuel trucks on site if their generators need to run for extended periods of time.
Rhode Island has signed contracts to boost clean energy solutions like offshore wind, but Cunningham said it shouldn’t be on the backs of individual states to fully transition from fossil-fuel-fired power plants to renewable energy. It’s up to ISO New England, too, he said.
Kakley told the Globe Wednesday that their preliminary analysis indicates that the region should have “adequate fuel supplies” to meet consumer demand under “mild” or “moderate” weather — which in New England, he said, is a “fairly cold winter.”
ISO New England is in the process of developing its winter outlook, which won’t be released until later this year, but Kakley said they have forecasting tools in place to identify these conditions in advance so that steps — like public appeals for conservation — can be taken.
“As has been the case in past years, the region could face challenging conditions under prolonged cold weather if generators can’t access fuel,” said Kakley in an email. “If these conditions materialize, [rolling blackouts] would affect all six New England states equally.”
Ahead of the coldest winter months, Rhode Islanders are also bracing for electricity rates to increase nearly 50 percent starting Oct. 1. The price of natural gas usually climbs during the winter because of increased demand. But now there’s also a global supply shortage made worse by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. According to Rhode Island Energy spokesman Ted Kresse, the greater demand for liquified natural gas (LNG) in Europe and Asia is also having an impact on prices in the United States.
The increased cost has already concerned advocates, who said it could cause a spike in utility shutoffs this winter and an increase in homelessness. Earlier this month, Attorney General Peter F. Neronha filed a memo arguing that the state’s Public Utilities Commission should allow ratepayers the option to defer payments until next year and provide additional relief.
Earlier Globe reporting contributed to this report.