On Sunday, the region’s independent system operator (ISO) forecast that the six-state electric grid would need 13,500 megawatts of power with 17,300 megawatts of energy available. The supply met the need, but that solvency is no sure thing going forward.
Established in 1997 by the multiple energy deregulation acts from 1992 onward, the independent and nonprofit ISO New England is charged with ensuring a reliable, competitively priced flow of wholesale electricity for today and into the future. ISO assists with planning for power generation to meet our power needs, while working to lower power-generating emissions.
The bulk of Maine and New England’s electric generation comes from natural gas, 37 percent. Another third is from nuclear plants, while hydro projects produce 16 percent of our electricity. Renewable sources, such as solar and wind, contribute 14 percent of our overall electric supply. Coal and oil, the two largest producers of our power 25 years ago, have been drastically reduced and are now a combined 3 percent in New England and are generally backup generators when more dispatchable energy is needed — as the region demanded starting on Dec. 25, 2017, and lasting for two weeks. This flip in power generation has resulted in over 50 percent lower power generating emissions plus slightly lower costs.
Back in August 2006, ISO New England saw the largest one-day spike in energy consumption with demand for 28,130 megawatts of electricity — far above the available supply. These power spikes require almost instantaneous supplies of dispatchable power — the sources of electricity that can be dispatched by grid operators as needs demand. Intermittent energy sources, such as wind and solar power, are not dispatchable and cannot be throttled up when demand spikes.
State governments across the ISO footprint are mandating shifts to renewable fuel supplies. ISO is faced with the pending closure of another nuclear plant, Pilgrim Nuclear, one of the region’s largest generators. Pilgrim is closing in 2019. Vermont Yankee closed in 2014. With natural gas line expansions stalled at the border in New York and Massachusetts, despite demand in New England for more American-produced natural gas, the grid is left looking for more reliable, dispatchable electricity.
Enter Central Maine Power and the New England Clean Energy Connect Hydro-Quebec transmission line proposal. To the dismay of those backing wind and solar power projects that may or may not bear fruit in western Maine, Hydro-Quebec is offering 1,200 megawatts of renewable DC electricity via a new transmission line in western Maine to Lewiston, then on to meet Massachusetts’ renewable energy commitments to regulators and the ISO.
A corollary benefit of the Clean Energy project will be the welcome lowering of Maine’s energy rates, while supporting the emissions goals of ISO’s energy strategies. Without the Clean Energy project, ISO New England is faced with returning to coal and oil electricity for dispatchable energy, counter to the emissions and cost gains currently realized. Solar and wind proponents, for whom there still is a place at the table, need to recognize that they simply are unable to meet our sometimes volatile electricity demands.
The Clean Energy project is a conduit to clean, economically sustainable, reliably dispatchable energy so essential for our economy. Opponents might help sharpen the focus of the project, but short of a better idea for replacing the expected losses of thousands of megawatts of needed electricity, the Clean Energy project is an essential component needed for Maine’s, and New England’s, energy future.