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Decarbonizing The Grid: Where Are We?

Sam Evans-Brown

New Hampshire’s energy grid relies heavily on fossil fuels like oil and coal, and getting the grid off of those fuels will be a major hurdle in addressing the challenge of global warming.

But here in New Hampshire, it’s proving a steep challenge to get carbon out of the electric supply, without breaking the bank for customers or utilities. But that doesn’t mean that people aren’t trying. As part of a weeklong look at New Hampshire’s Energy Future, we ask what’s being done about CO2?

Efficiency First

A Bruss Construction weatherization crew is busy spraying insulating foam in the basement of an Old New Englander in Hopkinton.  Then they head up to the attic, where they blow cellulose insulation into the space. 

Michael Bruss, who is somewhat of an evangelist for energy efficiency, will tell you that the cheapest megawatt of energy is the one you never have to produce.  He says when done right, this type of work pays for itself.

“We can consistently show a 30% reduction of energy costs,” he explains, “taking the construction costs associated with the energy measures financing those, those projects will cash flow positive immediately, from day one.” After a short pause Bruss adds, “And then you obviously work yourself out of that investment it’s pure gravy after that … And that’s without incentives.”

But incentives there are. The state’s utilities offer money back to customers who make their homes and businesses more energy efficient. Customers pay for those incentives on the “system benefits charge” part of their electric bill, and New Hampshire utilities contribute to the fund through the controversial Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, or RGGI.

According to ISO New England, which operates the region’s electric grid, the New England states are expected to spend $5.7 billion dollars on these subsidies by 2021. But for that money, the region will shave more than 1400 megawatts off what its forecasted demand would have been.  That’s more than the output of a nuclear plant.  And it will save another $260 million dollars in transmission line upgrades.

Sounds like a good deal, but utilities, who make their money selling electricity, aren’t sure this is the best way to allocate energy dollars. 

Credit ISO-NE
ISO New England's forecasts of peak summer demand. The blue line is the base forecast, while the black line shows the impacts of energy efficiency measures around the region.

“Is it cost effective? Some people will absolutely believe that as a religion,” says PSNH president Gary Long, “Obviously it’s cost effective for the one getting the subsidy.  Is it cost effective for the one paying the subsidy?”

Long points out in comparison Northern Pass is slated to cost about a billion dollars, and generate 1200 megawatts. Viewed in that light, $5.7 billion to save 1400 megawatts isn’t so attractive.

But when the money that consumers save on buying less energy is factored in the New Hampshire Public Utility Commission finds that it costs about 2.1 cents to save a kilowatt/hour of energy versus 13 cents it costs generators to produce that same juice.  In other words, the PUC finds once savings are considered, these efficiency programs are a much cheaper way to meet the state’s energy needs.

But even with all of this energy efficiency work, peak energy demand is still forecast to rise over the next ten years. Add to that the fact that there are 8600 MW of power plants in New England that are more than 30 years old.  Many of them are oil-fired power plants, which are costly and hardly run anymore, and the ISO expects them to retire in the next decade.

Transitioning Away From Fossil Fuels?

You start to see why new power plants are still being proposed and built. So the question is, what kind of new plants are going to replace those old ones?

There is a state law that is driving the answer to that question. New Hampshire’s Renewable Portfolio Standards require that by 2025 15 percent of the state’s electricity comes from wind, new biomass plants, or a hodgepodge of other technologies: geothermal, wave or tidal energy, or methane

In terms of which technologies are mature enough for power companies to invest in in a big way, perhaps it’s useful to look at what the state has built, and is building.  

The state has three wind farms, for a total of 171 megawatts, with one more going through the permitting process, and a couple of others earlier along. And it has seven biomass plants, at 148 MW, with two more, on the way in Berlin. Foresters say that’s about all the state’s forests can handle. None of the other renewables are being moved forward on the same scale.

But even completing this modest amount renewable energy is not a sure thing. Some of these projects face stiff opposition, as the growing local pushback against wind development in the Newfound Lake region has shown.

Recently anti-wind activist Lisa Linowes stood before a packed house in the auditorium of the Newfound High School discussing the drawbacks of ridge-line wind development. “The sense is everything’s going to be approved,” she said, “and we are at the point that we should be very afraid.”

But despite the growing uproar over onshore wind in the state Michael Hogan, an analyst with the Regulatory Assistance Project – which helps advise on how to de-carbonize the electric grid – says for New England onshore wind will just be a small piece of the puzzle.

“When we look back, 20 years from now, onshore wind will seem a little quaint. The good news, if anything, it is a region that is rich in offshore wind resources.”

Credit Phault / Flickr Creative Commons
Flickr Creative Commons
If such projects can be economically viable, many in the renewable industry say that New England has a vast off-shore wind resource.

While that development won’t happen in New Hampshire, Hogan says if it’s put in it will power the state. The big hurdle will be the technological challenges of putting a turbine out where gale force winds are common.

A Technical Challenge?

If truly large-scale wind farms do come to New England, the region will confront another criticism from wind opponents like Linowes is that there are other costs associated with intermittent renewables: large numbers of wind turbines need something backing them up. “In effect what we have with wind energy is two electric systems that are being built.  Other resources have to be in play and available all the time,” Linowes tells the crowd in Newfound.

According to Willet Kempton who studies renewables at the University of Delaware, on today’s grid, that back-up is provided by coal or gas plants. They are paid extra to spin at half power and let the grid’s computers bring them up to full power, or down even lower as supply from renewables, or random spikes in demand fluctuate. 

“There is some efficiency lost, the owner of the plant is not producing at maximum power, so they have to paid to produce at a lower level, but it’s fairly small.”

Kempton says, that lost efficiency is a price to pay for less carbon in the grid, unless or until some sort of storage technology becomes viable. Right now, it’s negligible, but if the region were getting 30 percent of its power from wind the efficiency lost could rise to 15% for those plants.

Biomass, and of course, traditional plants that burn a fuel like natural gas, don’t have these same challenges. And the biggest challenge for the renewables currently being developed? Nobody believes wind and biomass alone can fulfill our state’s energy demands.

There is another source of renewable energy with its own upsides and downsides: large scale hydro.

Tomorrow we’ll take a closer look at whether Canadian Hydro poweris a good fit for New England.

Sam Evans-Brown has been working for New Hampshire Public Radio since 2010, when he began as a freelancer. He shifted gears in 2016 and began producing Outside/In, a podcast and radio show about “the natural world and how we use it.” His work has won him several awards, including two regional Edward R. Murrow awards, one national Murrow, and the Overseas Press Club of America's award for best environmental reporting in any medium. He studied Politics and Spanish at Bates College, and before reporting was variously employed as a Spanish teacher, farmer, bicycle mechanic, ski coach, research assistant, a wilderness trip leader and a technical supporter.

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