3 Things No One is Telling You About Rising Energy Costs

Oct 3, 2014 by  | Bio |  1 Comment »

Rahm Emanuel, President Obama’s first White House chief of staff, was once quoted as saying “You never want to let a serious crisis go to waste,” referring to the opportunities to pass sweeping bills in the wake of the 2008 financial meltdown Over the past weeks, we’ve seen that sentiment put into practice by some of New England’s major energy industry players. They’ve been fanning the flames of fear over expected winter price spikes to support their continued push for building massive new gas pipelines, even though new pipelines have no chance of helping to address the risk of price spikes for this winter. Here are 3 things you’re not being told about what’s really responsible for the increased rates and how to deal with rising energy costs now:

  1. New pipelines can’t and won’t address the rising rates for this winter (or the next three winters).
    • Even under the most optimistic scenarios, new natural gas pipelines of the scale that were being considered as part of the now-stalled New England Governors’ initiative could not be permitted and built earlier than November 2018. Even if they lived up to the Governors’ promises after that, they would do nothing for consumers this winter and the next three winters.
    • New England isn’t the only region of the country that experienced price spikes this past winter. New York, an area that had just expanded its pipeline capacity still experienced higher prices last winter, and the regional electric grid known as PJM (because it covers, in part, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Maryland) also experienced price spikes even though it is located in the epicenter of abundant Marcellus shale gas supplies.
  2. The real problem isn’t a major deficit of pipeline capacity, but a failure to deal adequately with the increased use of natural gas for power generation.
    • We now use a lot of natural gas for power generation in New England, which helped modernize the system by moving us away from old, polluting, and inefficient sources like coal and oil. Because of this, and the way the regional grid’s electric market works, natural gas prices now generally set the price for electricity in New England.
    • Unlike natural gas utilities that supply homes and businesses with gas for heating, which buy gas on long-term “firm” contracts that guarantee access to gas, the companies that own natural gas power plants typically buy cheaper “interruptible” contracts because there isn’t currently a mechanism that allows them to pass-through the additional costs of buying firm supply.
    • In the winter time, people are often turning on the heat at the same time that they are turning on the lights, so the system experiences high demands on gas for both uses in the mornings and afternoons. These “coincident” demands led to price spikes between 10-42 days in each of the last winters, and retail electric prices are now catching up as the market is expecting a repeat of last winter’s high prices.
    • Now that natural gas makes up so much of the electricity we use, the volatility of gas prices has a bigger impact on electric prices and leads to higher rates. We have been far too slow in deploying demand-reducing energy efficiency measures in homes and businesses and in increasing the amounts of local renewable energy on the system, both of which would help reduce market prices for electricity and protect us from volatile gas prices.
    • The increased use of liquefied natural gas (LNG) imports should help to moderate the price spikes to some extent this year, but more can be done through market reforms without risking overbuilding gas capacity.
  3. Energy efficiency is the best way to reduce your bills and stay warm this winter.
    • Even though rates are going up, you can still lower your total bill by lowering your demand. Massachusetts has some of the best energy efficiency programs in the country which means that you can apply for rebates, incentives, and assistance to help you install efficient measures. Other New England states have programs as well.
    • If you don’t own your home or apartment, there are still some inexpensive steps you can take to cut your bills. There are many ways to conserve energy for a very small investment of time or money. Check back in for a look at how Senior Attorney Shanna Cleveland is getting her apartment ready for the winter.

Working with the ISO to Integrate Renewable Energy in New England

Sep 15, 2014 by  | Bio |  2 Comment »

The ISO is the organization that operates the New England-wide electricity grid and runs New England’s wholesale electricity markets.

You can read more about what the ISO is, and why CLF works on ISO committees and working groups.

I have written before about CLF’s work with the ISO. You can read those prior blog posts here, here, and here.

As I have said before, CLF is one of the very few environmental organizations to work with the ISO, and no other environmental organization is as heavily engaged in the ISO as CLF is.

A few days ago, I wrote about one of the major criticisms of renewable energy – that it is too expensive – and how changes that CLF is seeing at the ISO are, even now, making that argument a thing of the past. Today I want to describe another frequently heard criticism of renewable energy, that it is not always available and so it cannot be relied upon like fossil-fuel generation can.

We renewable energy advocates hear that argument a lot. For example, the nationally prominent, anti-renewable-energy Heritage Foundation wrote on May 5, 2010:

Wind, like solar energy, is not a dispatchable power source; that is, it cannot be turned on at will. As a result, increasing dependence on wind adds variability and uncertainty to the power grid that must be offset by quick-ramping power sources like natural gas turbines to maintain a relatively constant flow of electricity.

When the Heritage Foundation discusses an electricity source being “dispatchable,” it means both being turned on and off at will, and being able to increase or decrease its electricity output at will. Here in New England, the ISO, which runs our electricity grid, “dispatches” every electricity generator in the region. The ISO tells those generators when to run and when not to run; and it tells them exactly how much electricity to churn out. This is essential to maintaining the reliability of the electricity grid, because the aggregate supply produced by all the generators in the region has to be exactly equal to the aggregate demand of tens of millions of customers every minute of every hour of every day of the year.

What the Heritage Foundation means to say here is that the wind does not always blow and the sun does not always shine. For these reasons, up until now, renewable energy has not been a dispatchable power source.

But here is the really cool news from the ISO: the ISO is now on an irreversible track to make intermittent renewable energy sources like wind fully dispatchable in the New England power grid. In fact, the ISO expects to have wind fully dispatchable in New England by late 2015 or early 2016!

According to the ISO, there are three requirements, or prerequisites, for making wind (and, eventually, other intermittent renewable energy sources) fully dispatchable.

The first requirement is that the wind farms, wherever they are located, be in constant electronic communication with the ISO’s control room in Holyoke, Massachusetts. The ISO refers to this requirement as “telemetry.” The telemetry between wind farms and the ISO control room is already in place; it exists today.

The second requirement for making renewable energy fully dispatchable is that the ISO needs to have reliable, accurate five-minute-ahead weather forecasts for things like wind speed and sunshine intensity. The ISO has been running trials for months now of five-minute-ahead forecasts; and at a meeting I attended this month, the ISO reported that the five-minute-ahead weather forecasts it has been receiving have been completely reliable and accurate and fully satisfy the requirements of the ISO control room.

The third, and final, requirement for making renewable energy fully dispatchable in New England is the creation of the actual computer algorithms that the ISO control room will use to dispatch renewable generators when the time comes. The ISO plans to issue a so-called “DNE Order” to every dispatchable renewable generator for every five-minute interval of every day. This DNE Order will set an upper limit (i.e., “Do Not Exceed,” hence, DNE) for that generator for that five-minute interval. As long as the generator does not go above its DNE limit, the generator will be considered (by the ISO) to be operating “within dispatch,” and will get paid for its electricity output.

It is this third, and final, part that is still needed to make renewable energy fully dispatchable. And at the ISO meeting I attended this month, the ISO decided to start the actual work on those computer algorithms. These algorithms will take some time to complete; but when they are done, the ISO will treat wind as fully dispatchable in New England.

Many owners of fossil-fuel-fired power plants are very unhappy that the ISO is moving so inexorably toward making renewable energy fully dispatchable. Those fossil generators know, correctly, that having renewable energy fully dispatchable by the ISO will tend to undermine the economic viability of their dirty, old power plants. This is especially true now because the ISO-New England, like other ISOs in other parts of the country, is also rolling out “negative price offers” that will make renewable energy resources even more economically competitive compared to fossil-fuel plants. (I discussed that development in my blog post a few days ago, which you can see, here.)

This is a very exciting time for CLF to be participating in ISO matters, because the ISO is moving on multiple fronts to integrate new renewable energy resources in to New England’s electricity grid.

For years, opponents of renewable energy have claimed that renewable energy, while clean and non-polluting, is too expensive for average ratepayers. But on December 3, 2014, ISO is introducing negative price offers, that will make renewable energy cheaper than ever before and drive down the cost of electricity for all New England ratepayers.

And for years, opponents (like the Heritage Foundation) have argued that renewable energy is not dispatchable. But even now the ISO is taking the final steps to make intermittent renewable energy resources fully dispatchable – and is writing the computer algorithms that the ISO control room will soon use to dispatch wind farms.

These are exciting times in the world of renewable energy development, and CLF is playing an active role in those developments.

The ISO – and How Renewable Energy Can Save Ratepayers Money

Sep 11, 2014 by  | Bio |  5 Comment »

Everyone’s heard someone claim that renewable energy is too expensive. This criticism often overlooks one of the most important benefits of renewable energy – not the environmental benefits (which are also very important!) but the price-suppression benefits. CLF is an active participant in the ISO-NE, and, as such, we get to see some of the ways that renewable energy saves ratepayers money – and we sometimes see this in ways that many members of the public do not.

ISO-NE stands for “Independent System Operator – New England.” The ISO is a nonprofit corporation, licensed by the federal government, that both operates the New England-wide electricity grid and runs New England’s wholesale electricity markets. In other words, the ISO tells every electricity generator in New England (whether powered by coal, gas, oil, nuclear, wind, or solar) when to be on (or off) and how much electricity to put into the grid – and the ISO runs the markets that determine how much you and I will pay for that electricity.

You can read more about what the ISO is, and why CLF works on ISO committees and working groups. And I have written before about CLF’s work with the ISO; you can read those prior blog posts here (discussing distributed generation), here (discussing reducing carbon emissions), and here (discussing energy efficiency). CLF is one of the very few environmental organizations to work with the ISO, and no other environmental organization is as heavily engaged in the ISO as CLF is.

First, let’s look at the price-suppression benefits that renewable energy (like wind and solar) have now in our electricity markets. Then, let’s take a look at how the ISO is planning to change the New England wholesale electricity market in a way that may increase those price-suppression benefits in the future.

How Renewable Energy Suppresses Prices Now

Electricity in New England is priced hourly, with the price each hour set by the most expensive marginal resource for that hour. That is, during every one of the 8,760 hours in a year, the ISO “turns on” the least expense generators first, and turns on the most expensive generators last. (That’s why electricity prices are highest on the hottest afternoons of the summer – because the ISO has turned on those last, most expensive generators when there is the most demand on the system, and those generators are setting the clearing price for the entire system.) The layering of generator bids, for every hour of the year – with the lowest bids on the bottom and the highest bids on the top – creates what the ISO calls the “bid stack.”

Thus, every generator on the system is paid the same clearing price for the same hour of the same day. And that clearing price is set by the last, “marginal” generator at the top of the bid stack, the most expensive generator operating during that hour. Of course, the overall clearing price paid by ratepayers is lowered when more low-cost power is bid in; and the overall clearing price is raised when more high-cost power is bid in.

Most renewable energy projects bid in to the New England electricity wholesale energy market at zero dollars for every day and every hour that it is available. This makes sense when you think about it. Most conventional generators (say, coal, oil, or natural gas) bid a price into the ISO-run energy market that reflects the price of the fuel that they burn. Wind and solar generators have free fuel.

The fact that renewable energy projects bid in to the ISO’s energy markets at zero means that the clearing price for all electricity for all ratepayers in New England gets lowered because of the presence of renewable energy at the bottom of the “bid stack” (in fact, at zero). This lowering of electricity prices paid by ratepayers due to the presence of renewable energy on the grid (and its presence in the ISO’s bid stack) is called the “price-suppression effect” of renewable energy.

And the amount of this benefit can be significant. In a recent report by a leading international consulting firm, Charles River Associates (CRA), on the price-suppression effect of the 468 megawatts of wind power expected from the Cape Wind project, CRA estimated the benefit to ratepayers to be about $185 million annually, or about $4.6 billion over the expected 25-year life of the project. These figures are controversial, and other experts put the dollar value of the price-suppression effect of Cape Wind significantly lower. Nevertheless, the price-suppression effect of renewable energy is real – and the CRA estimate was accepted into evidence in 2010 by the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities in the D.P.U.’s Docket 10-54, which examined the proposed contract between Cape Wind and National Grid. The CRA report is entitled “Analysis of the Impact of Cape Wind on New England Energy Prices,” and is dated February 8, 2010. (You can see the full text of the CRA report on the organization’s website.)

What the ISO Is Going To Change

These price-suppression benefits exist in the New England energy markets now, with renewable energy resources bidding in to the market at zero dollars per hour.

But on December 3, 2014, the ISO is going to begin allowing renewable energy generators to bid into the energy market at minus-$150 per megawatt hour! (Actually, all generators – even coal, oil, and gas generators – will technically be allowed to bid into the energy market at negative amounts; but in the real world, it is likely that only renewable generators will actually do that.) When renewable generators bid into the energy market at less than zero, those bids will be called “negative price offers.”

Of course, negative price offers have the very real potential of driving the overall clearing price of electricity in New England – the price for electricity paid by every ratepayer – down even further.

What do “negative-price offers” really mean? When a conventional generator (say, a plant that is fired by natural gas) makes a positive price bid into the energy market (say, $100/MWh), that generator is, in effect, saying, “I’ll sell my electricity into the market if the market will pay me $100/MWh for all the electricity I sell.” When a renewable generator (say a wind farm) makes a negative price bid into the energy market (say negative $100/MWh) that generator is, in effect, saying, “I’ll sell my electricity into the market – and I’ll give the market $100/MWh for all of my electricity the market takes.”

Pretty good, huh?

So, how can renewable energy generators stay in business if they are willing to pay the market to take their electricity? It’s simple. Renewable energy projects sell not only electricity, but also the Renewable Energy Credits (RECs) from their projects. But the projects can sell those RECs if, and only if, their electricity is going into the grid. Sometimes, the value of the RECs to the renewable project owner will be worth enough money that the project will be willing to sell its electricity into the grid at a negative price!

The Energy-Pricing Paradigm Is Changing!

Renewable energy has been around for decades. Over the past decade, as the public’s awareness of the climate change emergency has increased, environmentalists have had some success in promoting renewable energy. But for as long as environmentalists have been promoting renewable energy, the overall structure of the argument has been the same: sure renewable energy is clean and reduces carbon emission; but renewable energy is far more expensive than conventional power, and we just can’t afford it.

That paradigm is now changing. It won’t change all at once. But as the ISO introduces the new negative-price offers into the New England wholesale electricity markets, the general public (including government officials and, indeed, all electricity ratepayers) will more and more see the cost-savings from the price-suppression benefits of renewable energy.

And, wholesale electricity markets will see another consequence of renewable energy being recognized as more cost-effective than fossil generation as a result of the new negative-price offers: old, dirty, fossil-fuel generators will start losing market share and then they will start losing money. That’s why at every ISO meeting I have attended over the last two years at which negative-price offers have been discussed, the owners of dirty, old fossil-fuel plants have been noticeably discomfited. Those owners of dirty, old fossil fuel plants know something (correctly) that the general public is about to learn: the old paradigm in which renewable energy could be plausibly criticized as being too expensive is changing.

In the new paradigm, renewable energy will be not only cleaner than conventional electricity, but it will be cheaper, too. In fact, the ISO that runs the California electricity grid already allows negative-price offers from generators down to negative-$150/KWh; and the ISO that runs the New York electricity grid allows negative-price offers from generators down to minus-$1000/MWh.

Although the general public does not know these facts, the owners of fossil-fuel generators sure do! That’s why they are so unhappy that the ISO is introducing negative-price offers into New England – even though we ratepayers will benefit significantly.

Fresh Air Ahead: Transition to Clean Energy Supplies

Sep 8, 2014 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

It is welcome news that the New England Governors are stepping away from a high-risk gamble with clean air and electric customers’ money. Shrouded in secrecy, the New England States Committee on Electricity (NESCOE) undertook efforts that were poised to tax electric customers – including customers in Vermont – to pay for bringing massive new gas pipelines into the region.

These pipelines would lock in polluting fossil fuel supplies for decades. The NESCOE efforts are now on indefinite hold. That’s good. The shoddy analysis supporting the plans collapsed after being exposed to the welcome sunlight of public scrutiny.

But as the region closes older and dirtier generating facilities – such as coal plants in southern New England, and Vermont Yankee here in Vermont – and as we move transportation and home heating away from gasoline and oil, we need to make sure we transition to cleaner supplies.

We still have homes to heat, lights to keep on and businesses to run. As a region, we have committed to reducing our greenhouse gases. Our efforts are a model for the rest of the country. Climate change demands that we reduce emissions at least 75% below 1990 levels by 2050. To meet this challenge, Vermont has set a goal of meeting 90% of all its power needs with renewable sources by 2050. If and how natural gas fits into this equation is one of the biggest energy challenges of the next decade.

Once touted as a panacea and a “bridge fuel,” the exuberance for natural gas is tarnishing. Pollution from gas leaks during transmission and extraction threaten to eliminate any of the possible climate benefits from natural gas burning cleaner than oil. But reliance on natural gas, at least in the short term, is not likely to go away. Most of southern New England relies on gas for heating. During the very cold days last winter, high demand for gas drove up short-term prices to record levels. These price spikes have fed a frenzy of cries for new pipelines.

The real challenge lies in reducing our overall reliance on gas. It is not an option to use as much gas decades from now as we use today.

The actions we take now in terms of gas pipelines or new gas supplies need to foster the transition to the next generation of cleaner supplies. Our clean energy transformation will not occur if all our energy dollars continue to prop up old technology and fossil fuels.

The model Vermont created with energy efficiency holds promise for our next clean energy transformation – transitioning away from fossil fuels. For pennies a day our investments in energy efficiency have saved money, reduced pollution and allowed us to avoid building expensive new electric power plants.

As we look at gas supply we can see that making wise use of our existing pipelines is a good place to start. We can make sure the pipeline capacity we already have is being well utilized before leaping to build expensive new pipelines as NESCOE contemplated. This starts with fixing leaks and creating opportunities for storage or contracts to address the few hours of a few days of high demand in the winter.

If new pipeline capacity is added, its lifespan should be limited. To move away from fossil fuels by 2050, any permit for a new or expanded pipeline should expire in 2050. We must recognize the useful life of a new pipeline and not allow it to saddle customers with costs and pollution for decades to come.

Any pipeline capacity increase should include a “system transformation charge.” Similar to the energy efficiency charge, this would recapture a portion of the expected economic savings and use those funds to enable more energy efficiency and renewable power supplies. These funds would allow customers to reduce their reliance on fossil fuels each year, making the possibility of using natural gas as a “bridge fuel” a reality.

A clean energy transformation is in reach. Vermont and New England can lead the way leaving cleaner air and a healthier planet for ourselves and for generations to come.

Breaking News: NESCOE Suspends Votes on Tariff Proposals

Aug 1, 2014 by  | Bio |  9 Comment »

The New England States Committee on Electricity (“NESCOE”), an entity created to carry out the policy directives of the New England governors, had been hurtling down the track towards forcing electric customers to pay for a massive, new natural gas pipeline as well as new transmission projects to import large-scale Canadian hydropower. This morning at the monthly meeting of the voting participants in the New England Power Pool (“NEPOOL”), NESCOE signaled that the train is going to slow down.

In a surprising and welcome move, NESCOE announced at the meeting that it is delaying action on both the gas and electric proposals that it has been pursuing–proposals that have the potential to put billions of customer dollars at risk. NESCOE formally requested that all of the votes that had been scheduled for the proposals be taken off the calendar to allow for a delay of  “at least a month.”

For months now, CLF has been calling upon NESCOE and the New England Governors to bring these flawed proposals and the reasoning behind them out into the open. Until now, the formulation of and negotiations around these proposals have been conducted almost completely behind closed doors.  With this delay, NESCOE and the officials who direct its actions have a real opportunity to address procedural and substantive concerns — raised by CLF and other stakeholders —  by embracing a transparent, open process that includes a meaningful assessment of alternatives, including: efficiency, better utilization of existing infrastructure, and more renewable distributed generation. After all, the initial studies for NESCOE indicated that under a “low demand” scenario there would be no need for additional infrastructure at all.

This time around, CLF urges the Governors to require NESCOE to include an evaluation of the cost-effectiveness of all alternatives, as well as an assessment of which solutions are actually consistent with achieving the long-range energy and climate objectives of the New England states.

The NESCOE announcement also followed a compelling argument by CLF at the last Transmission Committee meeting on July 22, regarding the need for these proposals to be properly vetted through ISO-NE’s “Major Initiatives” process. These proposals carry with them the power to shape New England’s energy system for the next 40-50 years, so an open, public process is imperative. CLF will continue to provide the public with up-to-date information as it becomes available.

You’re Fired! – I Quit!

Apr 2, 2014 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

Entergy-VYThe owners of the troubled Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant chose to “quit” before they were “fired.”

The recent regulatory decision by the Vermont Public Service Board highlights the long and troubled history that led most Vermonters to completely lose faith in the owner’s ability to responsibly manage the plant.

In stark terms the Board recognized that the “sustained record of misconduct has been troubling to observe over the years.”  Specifically, the Board stated:

“In its twelve years of operating in Vermont, Entergy VY has failed to comply with numerous Board orders and statutory requirements. It has failed to follow procedural requirements that protect the integrity of Board proceedings. The Company has engaged in unacceptable conduct that erodes public trust and confidence in its capacity to act in good faith and to engage in fair dealing; an investigative report prepared by Vermont’s Attorney General concluded that Entergy VY  ‘repeatedly misled State officials with direct misstatements and repeatedly failed to clarity misperceptions.’” (emphasis added).

This bad track record was on display throughout years of regulatory review. Seeing the writing the wall, it is no surprise then that Entergy chose to “quit” before being “fired.”

The Board’s decision allows for a winding down of Vermont Yankee’s operations with its closure within a year. The agreement approved by the Board does not provide much additional value for Vermont, but when the bad egg you were going to fire “quits,” you’ve already won.

Keenan’s Poison Pill Seeks to Exempt Salem Gas Plant from Permitting Process

Nov 13, 2013 by  | Bio |  8 Comment »

What would you sacrifice to have a power plant built in your backyard? Apparently, for Representative John D. Keenan of Salem, MA, the answer is just about anything. Representative Keenan is no stranger to handing out (or at least trying to hand out) sweetheart deals to power plant owners, but his latest attempt to get a power plant built in Salem, no matter the cost, is both unconstitutional and unconscionable.

Unhappy with the pace of the permitting process for the new natural gas plant planned by Footprint Power, a New Jersey-based developer, Keenan has hijacked an otherwise well-intentioned legislative effort to protect workers and the public from aging natural gas infrastructure, and is holding it hostage by adding language that would exempt Footprint Power from every single environmental and public health standard and permitting regime in favor of as-of-right approvals. Keenan’s proposed language attempts to allow Footprint to make an end run around any pesky appeals by local residents. It even purports to strip residents of their rights to appeal a federal air permit on the grounds that this project somehow should be exempt from complying with the laws, regulations, and public process that every other proposed power plant in the Commonwealth has had to satisfy.

Why would an elected official go so far out on a limb for one project? The legislation claims that the reliability of our electric system is at risk unless this plant is built without delay, but the truth is that ISO-NE, the regional electric grid operator, has a responsibility to plan for alternatives if the power plant doesn’t progress on schedule — and many of those alternatives, such as already planned transmission upgrades, may be cheaper and less carbon intensive.

According to Representative Keenan, the MA Energy Facilities Siting Board unanimously approved the construction of the facility, but he fails to mention that Ann Berwick, Chair of the Department of Public Utilities, expressed “misgivings” about approving the plant given that “the world is on a precipice” with respect to climate change, and that one board member declined to vote because he did not believe that the project had demonstrated that it could comply with the requirements of the state’s greenhouse gas reduction mandate, the Global Warming Solutions Act (GWSA).

Indeed, CLF filed an appeal of the Siting Board’s decision last Friday because there is simply no credible evidence in the record to show that this natural gas power plant will be able to comply with the requirements of the GWSA.

What is the GWSA, and why is it so important here? The Global Warming Solutions Act was passed in 2008 amid the growing awareness that climate change poses serious and imminent threats to the health and environment of all Massachusetts residents. Proof of that threat has mounted as storms like Irene, Nemo, and Sandy (not to mention this week’s super-typhoon Haiyan) have left devastation in their wake. The GWSA set mandates for reductions of greenhouse gas emissions in the Commonwealth, mandates that are based on what the science tells us is necessary to avert the worst effects of climate change. The GWSA also requires that every agency must consider the effects of climate change in issuing any decision or approval.

Footprint Power and Representative Keenan have claimed that the proposed natural gas plant somehow will benefit the climate, but in doing so they seem to ignore that this new power plant would be capable of emitting over 2 million tons of carbon dioxide a year – a significant problem if we’re going to de-carbonize the electric grid by 2050, as necessary.

The bottom line is that while natural gas may burn cleaner than coal and oil, it is still a fossil fuel with significant carbon emissions. Locking in new natural gas infrastructure means locking out zero-carbon technologies like wind and solar. Footprint Power is proposing the first new natural gas plant since the enactment of the GWSA.  If we don’t set a strong precedent now for ensuring climate compatibility of new energy infrastructure – and ensuring bedrock environmental, public health and public trust protections are applied – then there is little chance we will succeed in meeting our climate mandates and protecting Massachusetts and its residents. Unfortunately, Representative Keenan has chosen protecting Footprint’s gas plant from review over protecting his constituents and the public process they’re due.

As a Hail Mary pass, it’s an odd one to be sure. Even if Keenan succeeds, the provision is not expected to survive review by the courts and probably would serve only to delay the required public process.

 

 

Fighting for Cleaner, Cheaper Energy Through Distributed Generation

Oct 23, 2013 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

CLF is taking an active role in the newly-created Distributed Generation Forecast Working Group (DGFWG) of the Independent System Operator-New England (ISO-NE). The ISO-NE is the operator of the New England electricity grid.  You can read the background on CLF’s on-going work with ISO-NE.

What is Distributed Generation?

Distributed Generation (DG) is small, local, electricity-generation facilities; DG most often refers to renewable energy.  According to the ISO-NE, “[t]he most common distributed generation resources include: solar photovoltaic (PV), small-scale wind, fuel cells, combined heat and power, and small hydro-electric power.”

Every state in New England has laws designed to encourage renewable DG, usually as part of a broader package of laws that encourage renewable energy.  In recent years, these laws have been effective in stimulating the development of many megawatts of renewable energy in all six New England states.

But we do not really know how much.  In fact, the ISO-NE believes that 85% of all the renewable-energy DG in New England is “invisible” to the ISO-NE – that is, the ISO-NE is neither aware of its existence nor of its location.  The purpose of the ISO-NE’s newly-formed DGFWG is to correct this problem, to identify how much DG there is in New England, what type (that is, technology) it is, and where it is located.

What is Happening?

At the very first meeting of the DGFWG, on September 30, the ISO-NE circulated a proposed “Scope of Work” for the Working Group.  CLF, together with the Maine Office of the Public Advocate (MOPA), is advocating that the ISO change significantly the Scope of Work for the new DGFWG. 

The primary suggestion we are making is very simple.  The ISO-NE’s proposal would have the DGFWG look only at the costs and engineering challenges presented by DG.  As CLF would revise the Scope of Work, the DGFWG would examine and quantify both the challenges and the benefits from DG.

This is an important distinction.  DG is like every other energy source in the world:  it comes with both costs and benefits.  (For example, coal has the benefit of being cheap; but it has the costs of being extremely dirty, putting toxic mercury into the atmosphere, and being a major cause of climate change.)  By contrast, renewable DG may cost a little more than coal, but DG is clean, creates local jobs, builds an area’s economy, and does not spew either toxic mercury nor greenhouse gas pollution into the atmosphere.

Today, every state in New England has a pretty good idea how much extra it is spending to encourage development of clean renewable-energy DG.  But no one has ever tried to accurately quantify either how much DG we are getting for that extra spending (in megawatts), nor quantify the ratepayer benefits we are reaping (in dollars).  CLF is advocating to have the DGFWG make a start on correcting that imbalance, by accounting for the many benefits of DG that is already on the system.

The existing DG on the ISO-NE’s electricity grid can confer benefits to ratepayers in a variety of ways.  For example, knowing about existing DG may enable the ISO-NE to be able to buy less of the most expensive electricity at times of peak loads, thereby saving money for ratepayers.  Knowing exactly where the DG is located may help my reducing the need to build out expensive new transmission projects, thereby resulting in more ratepayer savings.  But ratepayers can only realize those benefits if the ISO-NE “sees” and properly accounts for the DG that the states have already paid for.

What Can be Done?

I represent CLF on the DGFWG, and here is one aspect of that representation that I especially like.  Sometimes, we environmentalists are criticized for wanting industry (and the public) to spend more money for environmental safeguards.  Of course, I understand the many invaluable benefits to the public health and well-being that come with those safeguards; nevertheless, the criticism that is often heard is that environmentalists are costing the public money.

But our work on the DGFWG is doing just the opposite.  In this case, we are fighting to save the public money.  Every New England state is spending money (sometimes millions of dollars) on DG.  We environmentalists have sold DG to the public by explaining – honestly – that DG confers many benefits.  But ratepayers only reap the financial benefits of DG if the ISO “sees” and properly accounts for the DG that is already on the system.

CLF was very pleased to be joined by the Maine Office of the Public Advocate – the statutory ratepayer advocate in Maine – in submitting joint recommendations for changes to the DGFWG’s Scope of Work.  We are pleased because both CLF and MOPA are trying to advocate for ratepayer interests here.

Reading Your Street: What You Can Learn About Natural Gas Infrastructure

Aug 9, 2013 by  | Bio |  1 Comment »

You’ve heard of the writing on the wall, but what is all that writing on the sidewalk and the street? You’ve seen it—yellow, orange, blue, red and white.

Some of it is pretty easy to decipher like “DS” for “Dig Safe” or “STM” for “steam” but some of the drawings look more like ancient hieroglyphics.

 

It’s incredible what’s running right beneath our feet, like an entire natural gas infrastructure, but we rarely take time to think about it.

In Massachusetts, we have over 21,000 miles of natural gas distribution pipeline running under our streets. That’s almost enough pipeline to circle all the way around the Earth. For perspective, you could drive from Boston to San Francisco and back three times and still not put 21,000 miles on your odometer.

I’ve been thinking about what’s under the street a lot over the past two years. In July 2011, I was introduced to a professor at Boston University, Nathan Phillips, who had embarked on a journey of mapping natural gas leaks in the City of Boston. Using a high tech sensor, Nathan was detecting leaks and translating them into incredible visual representations that called attention to the aging natural gas pipelines criss-crossing our city.

natural-gas-infrastructure

Maps created by Nathan Phillips of Boston University

After I saw Nathan’s maps, I couldn’t keep my eyes off of the ground. Whether I was walking or biking, I started to notice all kinds of infrastructure, not just natural gas, everywhere.

There were “Gardner Boxes” in front of the houses on my street—these are one type of emergency shut-off valves for gas service lines.

natural-gas-infrastructure-Emergency-Shut-Off

Emergency Shut-Off

Then there were the large, bold, golden “G”s on the street, sometimes accompanied by CI (which stands for cast iron) or PL (for plastic) or BS (for bare steel), or CS (for coated steel) 18-in or 12-in or 3-in (telling me the diameter of the pipeline), and NGrid or NStar (the name of the company that owns the pipeline).

Suddenly, I could tell a lot about my street just from looking down. But what I couldn’t tell from the markings alone was just how important natural gas infrastructure is for a safe, thriving and sustainable neighborhood. That took some digging of a different variety.

Leaking Pipes Contribute to Climate Change

What I found was surprising and unsettling. Massachusetts has some of the oldest natural gas pipelines in the country. Almost 4,000 miles of the pipeline in Massachusetts is cast iron and another 3,000 is what’s known as “unprotected steel” (meaning unprotected from corrosion). These two types of pipe are referred to as “leak-prone pipe” in the industry because they are highly susceptible to breaks, fractures, and corrosion. Cast iron pipe was first installed in the 1830s, and some of the pipe in Massachusetts that is still in service dates to the Civil War. The gas utilities have started to focus on replacing this “leak-prone” pipe, especially since the tragedies in San Bruno, California and Allentown, Pennsylvania brought home how dangerous old pipelines can be.

But replacing old and leaking pipelines isn’t solely about public safety. It’s also a matter of conserving a valuable natural resource and tackling climate change. Natural gas is up to 95% methane, a greenhouse gas that is 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide on a 100 year time frame. When natural gas is combusted, in your furnace or in a power plant, it emits much less carbon dioxide than oil or coal, but when it’s leaked directly into the air from a pipeline, it adds up to a significant source of greenhouse gas pollution.

Unfortunately, current methods for estimating just how much natural gas is leaking from pipelines aren’t very accurate. What we do know is that leaking pipelines in Massachusetts are releasing between 697,000 tons of CO2e and 3.6 million tons of CO2e every year. That’s a huge range, and one that we’re working to narrow with the help of Professor Phillips and his students. These leaks can also take a heavy bite out of gas customers’ pocketbooks, as a recent report prepared for Senator Ed Markey showed.

What You Can Do

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be posting more information here about the efforts to replace leak-prone pipeline in Massachusetts and what you can do to make sure that your street is both safe and climate friendly. Until then, here are a few tips to remember:

1) Dig Safe—You never know what types of pipelines, wires, or cables may be running under your lawn or sidewalk. Dig Safe will contact the utilities so that they can mark the lines for you. Even for small projects like planting a tree, always check in with Dig Safe before you dig. It’s free, and it’s required by law to keep you and your neighbors safe. You can check the website or simply call 811 before you dig.

2) Report Leaks—If you think you smell gas, put out all open flames and do not use lighters or light matches. Do not touch electric switches, thermostats or appliances. Move to a safe environment and call your gas company or 911 to have them come check it out. Here is the contact information for Massachusetts’ three largest gas companies: Columbia GasNational Grid, and NStar Gas.

3) Conserve—It sounds simple, but using less is one of the most important steps you can take to reduce the climate impacts from natural gas. Contact MassSave for a free home energy audit.

4) Contact your Legislator—Legislation is pending in Massachusetts right now that would help fix these leaks. We’re supporting H.2933 and portions of S.1580. I’ll be writing more about this in the coming weeks, but in the meantime, you can take a look at the testimony we filed with partners like Clean Water Action.

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