BOSTON — The New England region needs more natural gas pipelines and power transmission lines, speakers at a conference on regional energy policies said last week.
The region has grown increasingly reliant upon natural gas for electricity generation, but pipeline development hasn’t kept pace, some said.
Unavailability of sufficient natural gas could lead to high power prices as producers are forced to fire up outmoded or backup plants when gas demand exceeds pipeline capacity.
Others at the Boston conference, however, said better use of currently available technology could meet much of the demand with existing infrastructure.
Meanwhile, the use of renewable energy could increase if the New England states enable the building of large-capacity transmission lines to carry electricity from Canada, according to executives with Quebec companies.
As things stand, New England’s reliance on coal or oil for power generation when natural gas isn’t available could mean high prices both financially and environmentally, executives said.
“In the winter days it’s tough — there’s just simply not enough gas,” said Marcy Reed, president of National Grid in Massachusetts, a gas and electricity company. The slated retirements of generators such as the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station in Plymouth, Massachusetts, will only exacerbate the problem, she said.
“Meanwhile renewables … large and small are starting to fill that gap, but not at any kind of a rate that we currently need to be, and of course intermittency remains an issue for us as we try to keep the reliability of the grid stable,” Reed said. “So, without new gas supply to gas generation, we’ll have to, unfortunately, I’m guessing, do what we’ve done in some of the last few winters, which is switch to some of the dual-fuel plants, with oil or coal as the backup.”
“And the result, for our winter constraints, as long as they remain, our electric prices will remain high,” she said.
Shortages, or constraints, could arise as a result of several contributing factors, speakers said.
For a variety of reasons — including cost and the growing reluctance Americans feel toward power sources they consider environmentally harmful — current power plants are being mothballed across the Northeast.
Politicians have promised they’ll be replaced with renewable energy. But in the meantime, natural gas is cheap, and the fuel source is in some circles considered cleaner than other fossil fuels, so natural gas power plants have become a common source of electricity throughout the Northeast.
This means that while Northeast states are attempting to ramp up the ratio of renewable sources in their power mix, natural gas isn’t going away anytime soon, speakers said.
Non-gas generators around the Northeast are disappearing, said several speakers, including James Daly, vice president of energy supply at Eversource Energy. As many as 3,000 megawatts’ worth of non-gas generators in the Northeast have recently been taken offline or are slated to be in the near future, Daly said.
As a result, what’s coming for the foreseeable future, Daly said, “is increased reliance on natural gas.”
His fellows agreed.
“We need enhanced natural gas infrastructure,” said Richard Paglia, president of Maritimes & Northeast Pipeline.
“I’m not suggesting gas is the only source” of energy needed in the Northeast, “but it will remain vital … for decades to come,” Paglia said.
Natural gas as a percentage of the Northeast’s power mix grew from 21 percent in the year 2000 to 43.8 percent in 2014 and is expected to grow to 49 percent by 2020, said Christopher Huskilson, president and CEO of Emera, a Canadian energy company. Renewables are expected to have expanded from 15.5 percent in 2000 to 26 percent by 2020, he said.
That’s a problem because the Northeast has far too many regulations hampering fossil fuel pipeline development, said Alex Pourbaix, chief operating officer of TransCanada Corp., the company behind the controversial Keystone XL oil pipeline.
Because of this aversion to fossil fuel pipelines, Pourbaix said, Northeasterners experienced 90 natural gas shortages last year alone. These shortages leave Northeastern markets on some winter days with the most costly natural gas in the country, he said.
But alternatives exist already, some speakers said. One of those is hydropower, said Éric Martel, president and CEO of Hydro-Québec.
Martel’s company has massive amounts of power from dams on the St. Lawrence River, and the company is eager to send it into Northeast states, he said.
All that’s required is a regulatory framework that will ease installation of new power lines, he said. Massachusetts appears willing to adopt such a framework, and other states should follow suit, Martel said. The states will need to act as leaders on this issue, however, since the federal government appears unlikely to pursue expansion of renewable energy imports in the next several years, he said.
“We are really willing and able to support your state in achieving its vision” for renewable energy use, Martel told a crowd of more than 100 energy executives. “We have the supplies right now … but we need the proper framework.”
He said new energy storage technologies are also crucial to meeting state energy targets. Hydro-Québec is working with Sony to develop batteries that use new chemical formulas to greatly increase the number of charges they can take, Martel said — from around 3,000 cycles to as many as 20,000. Testing begins next year, he said.
Gaz Métro, the parent company of Vermont Gas Systems and Green Mountain Power, is hoping to export renewable energy from Canada as well, said the company’s vice president of development and renewable energy, Martin Imbleau.
The company has underway a 650-square-kilometer wind farm in Quebec, Imbleau said, and that power will be available for export.
But beyond additional power — from either wind turbines or natural gas produced by fracking — still further options are available, Imbleau said.
Power companies are increasingly trying to use existing infrastructure more efficiently, he said, and sufficiently developed information technology can create a “virtual pipeline” with what’s currently on the ground, by better coordinating supply with demand.
The situation’s comparable to that seen with auto infrastructure, said Sayun Sukduang, president and CEO of electricity provider ENGIE Resources.
Governments have long sought to fix excessive traffic with additional roads or added lanes, Sukduang said, but that approach eventually runs up against physical, environmental, regulatory or aesthetic constraints — for instance, nobody wants 20-lane highways, he said.
The same applies to energy, Sukduang said. America has already built an exceptional network of energy transmission infrastructure, he said, and there’s no good reason to keep expanding it when modern technology allows it to be used far more efficiently.
Americans have built a vast transportation network at great cost but wouldn’t tolerate these kinds of projects if they left enormous highways deserted most hours of the day, Sukduang said.
“I think that was the right thing to do for the economy,” Sukduang said, “but now we’re at a point in time where distributed energy is available to us, digitization of information, and a spirit of de-carbonization, and when you take those elements and combine them into the grid, I think our responsibility is: How do we coordinate our supply and demand better, unlocking the value of the system we’ve already invested in?”