This week in Texas, millions of people lost power in rolling blackouts after a historic winter storm. But could this happen in New England? And what are the tradeoffs of being prepared to keep the lights on as climate change drives more extreme weather?
NHPR's energy reporter Annie Ropeik talked about this with Dan Dolan, the head of the New England Power Generators Association, as part of NHPR's climate change reporting project By Degrees.
This transcript of an extended version of the broadcast conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.
Annie Ropeik: I'm watching this Texas situation unfold from here in New Hampshire, where we're in the middle of an ice storm and my heat and power are running just fine. Why don't we see rolling blackouts in this part of the country when the weather gets really bad, or are there conditions where that could happen here?
Dan Dolan: I think the biggest single issue is that winter is normal in New Hampshire and across the Northeast. We are used to seeing these types of intense winter storms and multiple low-degree days. The problem in Texas is, that's not normal there. This is a once-in-fifty, one-in-one-hundred-years type of event. And given that, the overall energy infrastructure system has not been developed and constructed with this type of severe weather in mind.
Annie Ropeik: Our power grid up here is different from Texas is in a lot of ways, and another big one is this idea of backups and fail-safes. We keep a lot of extra power on standby in New England for times like Texas is experiencing now, right? Where does that come from - like, what does that actually mean for power customers?
Dan Dolan: So, Texas is a little different. Their reliability system is based on the spot energy prices that happen in five-minute increments to balance supply and demand on the system. What that means is in times of stress, like right now, you see very, very high prices, up to $9,000 a megawatt-hour. To put that in perspective, in New England, we only ever see prices rise in $100, $200, maybe even in extreme situations $300 a megawatt-hour.
Instead in New England, what we use as our primary reliability market to ensure there are adequate resources on the system to meet demand is something called a forward capacity market. And it's an annual auction to commit to be online and have supply available, no matter what, three years into the future. But that does not exist in a place like Texas. And so it's one of the differences between the two markets and how things evolved.
Confidential info from a market participant in ERCOT: As of ~10 AM Eastern time, the system has ~30 GW of capacity offline, ~26 GW of thermal -- mostly natural gas which cant get fuel deliveries which are being priorities for heating loads -- and ~4 GW of wind due to icing. https://t.co/Bfpn0WeRIq
— JesseJenkins (@JesseJenkins) February 15, 2021
Annie Ropeik: Where does most of New England's forward capacity power, this power that we kind of put aside and know will be there in times of extreme demand – what kind of energy sources does that power come from?
Dan Dolan: So it's a pretty diverse mix. A little over 40% today comes from natural gas. We see nuclear power picking up the second largest majority of that. And then it's a mix of hydroelectricity, other renewable resources, some of the remaining coal and oil resources on the system. And then a growing proportion is also coming from electricity storage, whether that's batteries or pumped hydro stations, things like that.
We're also seeing the demand side getting engaged in being able to commit to providing some of that capacity, whether that's energy efficiency measures taken by the state, or something called demand response, which is the capability of large users to turn off in key moments of stress for the grid. So we're seeing all of those different mixes put together and then get dispatched on an economic basis, based on the location and making sure that the grid is balanced, by the air traffic controller and market operator for the electric system, an organization called ISO-New England.
Annie Ropeik: We've heard some climate activists argue that this series of backups, this situation where things like aging fossil fuel plants are kind of kept around in case of emergency...we've seen climate activists argue that is hindering New England's ability to transition to renewables. Do you think that's true?
Dan Dolan: I don't. This is a reliability market and it is based on economics and who can deliver a service best. As we've seen, we are in a transition on the electric grid and we're seeing growing proportions come from clean and renewable energy sources overall. And yet what we're also seeing is that in certain moments of stress, we still do require some of the backup and dispatchable energy that comes from some of the older, large, fossil-based resources on the system. There's a balance in all of this. And as we transition that grid, we'll see those new technologies and resources emerge and push out the older, less efficient resources.
I do also have to note that in New England, as we see the move on de-carbonization, we still have a hole in the market. We do not appropriately value carbon and de-carbonization within the market. My belief is that is missing. That's a component of the market that is necessary that will help further facilitate and enable that transition. But it doesn't exist today and it's something that we're working on.
Annie Ropeik: And then on the flipside of that, we see during times of rolling blackouts in other states like this, the argument that renewables are to blame - that it's the fact that renewables can't always run that contributes to this unreliability in places like Texas or even California last year during their heat waves. What would you say on that argument in New England?
Dan Dolan: In Texas, the initial indication is we're seeing issues on supply across the technology and fuel spectrum. Certainly there are issues that we're seeing at some renewable facilities, just as there are issues we're seeing at some of the more conventional technologies. In and of itself, I don't believe that any single technology is necessarily 'better than any other.' They have different attributes, some of those being reliability, others being environmental, others being economic. And it's trying to put all those pieces together to ensure that we do have as reliable a system as we can while maintaining cost-competitiveness for the consumer and environmental performance.
That's the jigsaw puzzle that we have. This is a big, complicated sector of the economy. It's incumbent that we get it right, and certainly as we see events going on in Texas right now and last summer in California, reliability is critical. It has real and sometimes, unfortunately, fatal impacts when it goes wrong. And as we move forward into the grid of the future in which we see electrification of vehicles and potentially heating, that reliability becomes even more important.