New England energy: wobbly progress

New England continues to outpace the U.S. in generating electricity from low-emissions energy. However, it is losing margins it held ten years ago, is falling behind in wind energy and is starting to regrow its uses of coal and fuel oil. Not well known: wood and waste burning remain steady energy sources.

Energy for electricity, 2013

Energy source U.S. N.E.
Coal 40% 6%
Natural gas 26% 44%
Nuclear 21% 34%
Hydro 7% 7%
Wind 4% 2%
Fuel oil 1% 1%
Wood 1% 3%
Waste 0% 2%
Solar 0% 0%
Other 0% 1%

Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration

Energy sources and obstacles: Development of New England energy over the past 20 years has largely replaced coal and fuel oil with natural gas. The region has hardly any fossil fuel deposits but has substantial resources in wind and wood. Sources of energy providing its electricity are shown in a chart.

NewEnglandElectricity2001to2014

Sources: U.S. Energy Information Administration, ISO New England for 2014

People informed from newspapers and pop media might think wind and solar have become large energy sources. They remain small–as the chart shows–ninth and tenth out of ten sources on the chart, until last year. In 2014, for the first time, New England wind turbines provided more energy than New England waste burners–each a little under two percent of total electricity. There has been more growth in electricity from hydro–mostly imported from Canada–than from wind, wood, waste, waves, solar, landfill gas and geothermal combined.

Cold winters in 2013 and 2014 saw drops in the use of natural gas for electricity. Distributors were obliged to supply heating customers. They could meet less than 90 percent of yearly average demands. New England now has generating plants that can replace all use of coal and fuel oil, but they lack reliable access to natural gas.

Blockage of natural gas supply to New England–from lack of pipeline capacity–is leading to higher prices and emissions. Blockages of high-voltage transmission lines and wind farm installations are aggravating the price and pollution problems. Political maneuvers and local factions are responsible. None of the problems come from limits of technology or finances.

Closure of the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant at the end of December, 2014, removed about five percent of New England’s average generation and cut the share of nuclear electricity in New England from about 34 to about 29 percent. As the chart shows, natural gas-fired generation squeezed out fuel oil, then coal; financial stress was building on nuclear. The former Vernon, VT, plant was the smallest nuclear plant operating in the region. Lacking access to ocean water for cooling, it became the most costly to run for the size.

Coping with obstacles: Until a new gas pipeline is completed, much of the deficit from closing Vermont Yankee will be filled by using coal and fuel oil. They can be transported by train, barge or truck, although at higher cost than moving gas by pipeline. The few remaining coal-fired plants are set for a brief bonanza and might provide 10 percent of the region’s electricity.

Last year, subsidized by all customers of the New England Power Pool, around 2,000 MW of the generating capacity was outfitted for “dual fuel”–meaning oil burners and oil tanks. During the winter of 2015, it might be enough to dampen the huge electricity price spikes from fuel hoarding and gouging that happened in 2014. However, it also means New England power producers have institutionalized a shift from natural gas and nuclear back to more costly and polluting coal and fuel oil: a reversal toward the 1950s.

New, renewable energy sources are starting to contribute: mainly land-based wind farms in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont. However, after strong growth during 2009 through 2013, New England wind energy faltered last year. Local factions have blocked new sites, and transmission capacity has saturated. Collapse of the proposed Cape Wind project, offshore Nantucket, helps electricity customers and could stimulate land-based wind energy.

Cape Wind’s lapsed contracts with Northeast Utilities and National Grid featured average wholesale prices of about 24 cents per kWh over the lives of the contracts. That was more than four times the average wholesale price of electricity in New England, estimated at 5.6 cents per kWh for 2013. Effective prices to retail customers for Cape Wind electricity–including transmission and distribution–could have risen to over 40 cents per kWh, more than double today’s average retail price. Cape Wind was hardly a generous neighbor.

– Craig Bolon, January 12, 2015


New England electricity, amounts by energy sources, 2001-2014, U.S. Energy Information Administration and ISO New England (for 2014), January, 2015

Electricity data browser, U.S. Energy Information Administration, 2015

Daily generation by fuel type, Operations Reports, ISO New England, 2015

New England generation by fuel type, Natural Gas Weekly Update, U.S. Energy Information Administration, January 8, 2015

New England power grid forced to deploy oil units, Argus Energy News, January 8, 2015

High prices show stresses in New England natural gas delivery system, Natural Gas Issues and Trends, U.S. Energy Information Administration, February 7, 2014

2013 Wholesale electricity prices in New England rose on higher natural-gas prices, ISO New England, March 18, 2014

Eileen O’Grady, Entergy to shut controversial Vermont nuclear plant, Reuters, August 27, 2013

Shirley Leung, Northeast Utilities happy to get out of Cape Wind, Boston Globe, January 8, 2015

Craig Bolon, Some “green energy” reminds us of leprechauns, Brookline Beacon, April 8, 2014

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