MASSACHUSETTS ELECTRICITY COSTS were well above the national average in 2014 for households and businesses, according to federal data. After paying $3 billion in excess electric costs in the winter of 2013-14 and another billion in 2014-15, it’s time for our region to make the tough decisions. That’s why it was good to see the New England Governors meeting in Hartford, CT, two weeks ago talking energy.
Cognizant of the high social cost of expensive energy, the governors’ statement noted that “New England consumers pay more for electricity than consumers anywhere else in the continental United States…” and that they are “relying on greater use of fuel oil to maintain reliability… revers[ing] progress on New England’s environmental objectives.” Fortunately, oil was cheap last winter. Should oil become expensive again, as most expect, the consequences of relying on oil in the winter will push the winter premium in power prices back from $1 billion to $3 billion.
What can be done about this? One response is to become more energy-efficient. Very significant progress has been made in New England on energy efficiency, with Massachusetts ranking first in energy efficiency with more to be done. But the fact remains that the climate is cold, and people need to heat their homes. Natural gas and electricity are the dominant winter fuels. If natural gas prices go up in winter because of restricted supply, consumers get a double whammy: skyrocketing prices of both the natural gas they use at home, and the electricity whose price is often determined by natural gas.
Our future energy decisions need to center around how best to substantially expand the amount of affordable clean energy for New Englanders; and how to meet the Renewable Portfolio Standards that most states have adopted as well as the commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Given electric projects that appear to be stuck in permitting hell, such as Cape Wind and Northern Pass, what can actually get built? Gov. Charlie Baker has emphasized, “realistic solutions” that will “strengthen the region’s energy network and lower costs for our families and businesses.” But which infrastructure projects or strategies should the governors support that enhance clean energy supply as efficiently as possible?
Three clean energy resources – solar, wind, and large-scale hydro—should be deployed. Solar energy is already on its way, with solar panels sprouting on rooftops all over New England. Productive as the solar industry has been, however, the most optimistic projections indicate it will provide at best about 10 percent of New England’s electric supply. So wind and hydro have to step into the breach, lest we slip back into dependence on fossil fuels for our electric supply. Between wind and hydro, Massachusetts has designated wind as especially desirable – truly the “fuel from heaven” – by making it (and solar) eligible to earn special subsidies called renewable energy credits, or RECs. Hydro is a welcome source of electric power, but it doesn’t qualify for RECs.
The problem is, New England’s transmission system was built up over the decades to connect oil, coal, and nuclear plants. To expand wind and hydro, New England has to adapt the grid for clean energy. It is incredibly difficult, however, to site new transmission lines. Several companies have proposed projects that would bring hydropower from Canada, but those projects completely bypass the excellent wind resources that are already being developed nearby in upstate New York and Maine.
It makes little sense to build one transmission system for hydro, and another for wind. It makes much more sense to develop projects that harvest the onshore wind in northern Maine and New York, and – since the wind doesn’t blow all the time – offer hydro producers a chance to fill the line when the wind isn’t blowing. If the two work together, the states and their customers are the winners. They get a two-fer: REC-eligible wind, carbon-free hydro, both affordable. Together, onshore wind and hydro are a formidable combination.
It’s inconvenient to build infrastructure to enable clean energy to meet New England’s electric supply needs. But done right, a simple, efficient system can be built for both wind and hydro. Done right, it can be economic. Done right, infrastructure can be permittable and buildable and not the locus for conflict. It’s never easy, but this is after all the home of John F. Kennedy, who said, in reference to another challenging project (putting a man on the moon), “We do this not because it’s easy. We do this because it’s hard.”
-Ed Krapels is CEO of Anbaric Transmission, a privately held company specializing in the development of energy transmission and microgrid projects.
Article originally appears in CommonWealth