UPDATE: Take Action: Restore Energy Efficiency Funding in Maine

Jun 23, 2015 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

UPDATE: Governor LePage vetoed the revised bill on Tuesday, June 23, but the state legislature voted overwhelmingly to override his veto that same night. “With their override vote, the legislature has served the best interest of all Mainers by restoring funding for energy efficiency,” CLF’s Executive Vice President, Sean Mahoney, said in a statement.

From here, it’s up to the Public Utilities Commission to draft a new rule that will properly fund energy efficiency. Thank you to everyone who contacted their legislators and asked them to stand strong on efficiency in Maine. Your voice made a difference.

My original blog post follows:

Do you like wasting energy? How about paying more for electricity? What about leaving nearly $200 million in energy savings on the table every year because a single “and” was accidentally left out of a law?

Who would say “yes” to any of those questions? Governor Paul LePage.

If Governor LePage gets his way, then Maine will leave more than $200 million in energy savings

If Governor LePage gets his way, then Maine will leave more than $200 million in energy savings on the table.

With one stroke of his veto pen, Governor LePage plans to wipe out $38 million in funding for energy efficiency in Maine by vetoing a bill that simply restores the missing “and” into the law.

Contact your state legislators today. Tell them to stand behind their decision to restore energy efficiency funding. Tell them to override LePage’s veto.

Less energy efficiency funding means losing hundreds of jobs. It means fewer residential homes and commercial businesses in Maine will be able to install energy efficient light bulbs and HVAC equipment. It means fewer energy assessments to help Mainers reduce their electricity bills. It means fewer rebates for solar panel installation. And the list goes on. Energy efficiency fuels our economy. It’s the foundation of a strong energy future. The stakes could not be higher.

Here’s the back story on how energy efficiency funding has come under threat and why it’s so important that you act now:

Efficiency Maine Trust lost $38 million in funding due to an accidental omission of the word “and” when the Maine legislature passed the Omnibus Energy Act in 2013. The legislature has now wisely acted to correct that error and passed LD 1215, an act that restores the missing “and.” The bill to restore energy efficiency funding received nearly unanimous support from the Maine legislature! But Gov. LePage is threatening to veto it.

LePage’s threat to veto is nonsensical. Energy efficiency measures not only benefit the environment and help address climate change, but they also save the state — and all of us — money!

Luckily, the Maine legislature has the power to override Governor LePage’s veto. Tell your legislators to do what’s best for Maine and vote to override LePage’s veto. The veto could come anytime today. The legislature could vote to override it in the next 48 hours. So please act now!

Please contact your Maine legislators immediatelyThis is an opportunity to thank your senator and representative for their initial vote (the lone vote against the bill came from Rep. Ricky Long) and let them know how important it is that they override a veto.

Take action to restore energy efficiency today! 

 

Newly Released ISO White Paper Confirms the Value of Renewable Energy in New England Wholesale Electricity Markets

Jun 11, 2015 by  | Bio |  1 Comment »

ISO-NE, the nonprofit entity that runs the New England electricity grid, is circulating a 12-page White Paper on (in the ISO’s words) how “To Ensure Reliability as the Grid Adapts to a Renewable Energy Future.”  In a memorandum accompanying the paper, the ISO says that it is hoping to stimulate a broad discussion on the paper at meetings of stakeholders and regulators this month.

You can read background on what the ISO is and what it does, here.  And you can read the full ISO White Paper, here.

The ISO’s White Paper is both interesting and important.   As the title of the document makes clear, the entire paper is about the impact of and the importance of renewable energy in the wholesale electricity markets.  Of course, environmentalists and renewable energy developers have been discussing the importance of renewable energy for years.  So, it is nice to see that several of the things we have been saying are now receiving confirmation from the operator of the New England electricity grid!

I.  Renewables Are Going To Lower Electricity Clearing Prices in New England. For years the overall structure of the public debate about renewable energy has been that environmentalists argue that we need renewable energy to avert a climate-change disaster, while consumer advocates sometimes argue against paying a premium for the environmental benefits of renewable energy.  Now the debate is changing.  As I pointed out in a blog last year, renewable energy resources are now bringing down the cost of electricity for customers.

The just-released ISO White Paper confirms that what CLF and other environmentalists have been saying about this is true.  Specifically, the ISO says:

  • “State subsidies for renewable resources will put downward pressure on energy-market prices . . .” [Page 1, ¶ 2.]
  • And this: “Additional renewables are expected to decrease wholesale electric energy prices . . . .”  [Page 1, ¶ 3, emphasis supplied.]
  • And this: “As the penetration of wind and solar resources grows, the price-reducing effects of renewables on electric energy prices will increase.”  [Page 3, ¶ 5.]

The paradigm is changing.  Where once it was thought that customers would have to pay more for renewable energy, it is now widely understood that renewable energy is working to drive down electricity costs in New England.  And the important thing is that it is not the environmentalists that are saying this; it is ISO-NE, the entity that runs the electricity markets that set prices for all electricity customers in New England.

II.  Clean, Low-Cost Renewables Are Going to Drive Coal, Oil, and Nuclear Out of the Market.  This is another point that environmentalists have been making for years – and, here, too, it is wonderful to see the ISO confirming what we have been saying all along:

  •  Wind and solar will “in turn increase the financial pressure on . . . nuclear and coal.”  [Page 3, ¶ 5.]
  • “The addition of large quantities of renewable resources . . . will affect what resources retire . . . and not all resource types will be affected equally.  New England has already experienced a number of retirements of coal, oil, and nuclear units in recent years . . . . With the expected increased penetration of renewable resources, more such retirements should be expected in the future.”  [Page 7, ¶¶ 3, 4, 5.]

Points I and II, taken together, mean we are going to get a cleaner environment with less carbon pollution – and at a lower cost to electricity customers.

III.  New England’s Forward Capacity Market is Working the Way It Was Meant to Work.  There is another consequence of the large number of “retirements” of coal, oil, and nuclear power plants in New England:  the clearing prices in the last two “Forward Capacity Auctions” in New England (specifically, for FCA-8 in February 2014; and FCA-9 in February 2015) have been higher than the clearing prices for prior auctions run by ISO-NE.  (For background on what these capacity auctions are, and how the capacity market relates to the electricity market, read this.)   The fact of higher auction clearing prices in the last two auctions shows that the ISO-run Forward Capacity Market (FCM) is working properly, and in exactly the way it was designed to work and meant to work.  The FCM was carefully designed specifically to send appropriate price signals to create the proper economic incentives for the entry of new generation resources into the market when those resources are needed.

The reason that the first seven Forward Capacity Auctions (2007 through 2013) cleared at very low prices is that, back then, there was excess generation capacity in New England; thus, there was no need to incent new generation to enter the market.  The reason that the last two FCAs cleared at relatively higher prices is that the dirty old coal, oil, and nuclear plants are retiring; thus, the auction is sending the very price signals that it was designed to send and meant to send:  for new generation capacity to enter the market.  As I discussed in a blog post a few months ago, the capacity market is working the way it was meant to work.  And that conclusion is confirmed by the  ISO’s White Paper, on pages 8 through 12.

Summing It All Up:  ISO-NE runs the entire New England electricity grid in real time, and also runs the wholesale markets that determine the price of electricity for all customers in New England.  CLF has been working for years to push the ISO to more fully integrate renewables into the New England electricity grid and compensate renewable generators more fully for their contributions to the grid.  The underlying themes of the just-released ISO White Paper are about the impact and importance of renewable energy in the energy and capacity markets.  This is a big deal.  The ISO is recognizing – and not tacitly, either – the increasing importance of renewable energy in the New England wholesale electricity markets!

In a very real sense, this newly released White Paper is a validation of work that CLF has been doing at the ISO literally for years.  Hooray!

New Legislation in Vermont

May 18, 2015 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

Lake Champlain

New legislation passed this session could help clean up ailing Lake Champlain.

It was a long and tiring Legislative session this year in Vermont.

On a very warm Saturday in May, Vermont’s legislators headed home. But not before making some good progress on key CLF priorities.

Clean Water

The key water quality bill, H.35,  focused on Lake Champlain. It sets a roadmap for further work. It provides funding for some additional staff for education and outreach as well as enforcement. It also creates a Clean Water Fund to keep track of funds spent on water quality.

Renewable Energy

The RESET law, H.40, finally eliminates the odd practice in Vermont that allowed the sale of Vermont created renewable energy credits to customers in other states while still claiming the power is renewable for meeting Vermont’s renewable energy goals.

The bill would set the highest standard of any place in the region for renewable energy – 75% by 2032. Much of this energy will come from existing facilities including from power imported from Hydro Quebec.

The new law will also require that 10% of the electricity in 2032 come from smaller scale renewable projects and provides for a new innovative program that encourages utilities to reduce overall fossil fuel use including from transportation and heating.  A troubling amendment that placed a cap on energy efficiency efforts was eliminated.

Toxic Soils

With growing development in downtown areas, disposing of contaminated soils has been challenging. A proposed bill, H.269, would have created a very broad exemption until new state rules are in place. CLF opposed the broad exemption and worked to strengthen the bill. As passed, the law provides a clear and safe way to manage soils from downtown developments. It avoids giving a broad handout to developers and makes sure that soils are managed to protect against any contact with people or water. It also provides a good test of effective soil management that should be helpful as the State develops rules.

The Alternatives to New Natural Gas Pipelines

May 15, 2015 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

Now that we’ve made it through the winter, policymakers in Massachusetts are taking a look at the state of energy in the Commonwealth and trying to sort out what to do about the big energy policy questions currently on the table. First among these questions is what, if any, public policy support and funding should be invested in natural gas pipeline infrastructure.

How policymakers answer this question is important because now, more than ever, we must look beyond fossil fuels and ensure that our energy system is one built on the cleanest energy sources. Overinvestment in natural gas is simply a bad bargain for our climate, for consumers, and for our economy.

For several years now CLF has been calling for caution in the pipeline debate by debunking myths presented by pipeline proponents, exploring the environmental and economic ramifications of overbuilding natural gas infrastructure, and highlighting alternatives to pipeline investments. I had the opportunity this week to present CLF’s broad vision for the future of energy in New England to the Massachusetts legislature’s Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities, and Energy. The plan I presented to the legislators:

1. Strategic public investment in the resource with the best rate of return for ratepayers: Energy Efficiency.

2. Strategic public investment in clean electric generation that is not tied to fossil fuel prices: Renewables.

3. Encourage the electric and gas markets to utilize existing gas storage and pipeline to meet peak gas demand.

4. Overall, the need for new gas pipeline has not yet been demonstrated, but if it occurs, we should begin with small pipeline upgrades and peak storage projects first.

5. If we still need more pipeline capacity after doing all of the above, go incremental first (by increasing the capacity of existing pipelines), and let the markets support the capital costs rather than putting them further on the ratepayers.

CLF is skeptical about new gas pipeline infrastructure buildout and efforts to put additional public money toward such projects. This skepticism is based in 1) the climate implications of entrenching gas further in our energy system, 2) the short-term economic effects of building new infrastructure when we’re not maximizing the infrastructure we already have, and 3) the medium- to long-term economic effects of fossil fuel prices dictating our energy prices.

Strategic investments in renewable energy sources will reduce our reliance on climate-changing fossil fuels. Photo credit: CLF

Strategic investments in renewable energy sources will reduce our reliance on climate-changing fossil fuels. Photo credit: CLF

Rather than more investments in fossil fuel-based energy, then, let’s instead invest wisely in energy efficiency and long-term contracts for renewable energy. And where the use of natural gas is currently necessary, let’s use LNG to supplement natural gas supply during periods of peak usage. Expanding our natural gas pipelines and our reliance on this carbon intensive and price volatile fuel should be New England’s last resort.

Effective, clean and economic alternatives are available now and they’re certainly a better deal for our climate and for ratepayers in Massachusetts and across New England.

My full slides and written testimony are available here and here. And, speaking of this winter, check out this paper collecting my colleague Christophe’s blog series on the energy lessons to be drawn from the performance of New England’s energy markets this winter.

The Final Word on Winter in New England’s Energy Markets, Part III: Some Lessons from a Calm, Cold Winter

Apr 2, 2015 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

With the winter behind us, New England can look to its energy future with the benefit of what we learned as predictions of crisis fizzled and historic cold tested the region’s energy system. In the first post of this series, I explained the data showing that New England energy markets this winter were much less expensive and volatile than during the winter of 2014. In the second post, I identified some reasons for this turnaround: market shifts that increased imports of liquefied natural gas and lowered fuel prices, and reforms that improved energy market rules and procedures. In this final post, I offer a few of this winter’s lessons, with important implications for the billion-dollar decisions on the future of our energy system that are now pending in state houses and government agencies around New England.

#1: With the savings this winter, the benefits of big bets on new infrastructure just got more questionable.

This winter’s most important lesson was that we can significantly reduce winter volatility and prices by more wisely using and upgrading the infrastructure we already have. Wholesale prices were way down, and electric reliability wasn’t at risk, despite the coldest February on record. But there was virtually no new energy infrastructure on the system; in fact, it was just the opposite: four large non-gas power plants retired before cold weather set in.

This lesson is not a new concept: CLF made this point well before the winter when we raised questions and released documents on the New England governors’ energy infrastructure “grand bargain” to subsidize new gas pipelines and power lines. At the time, an advocate of the Governors’ plan called CLF’s perspective “very dangerous.” It looks like we weren’t so off target.

In the next few years, several incremental gas pipeline projects will come online, adding to the region’s capacity by 10%. Although these projects’ capacity is not dedicated to power plants, it is intended to meet peak heating needs of gas users in a decade or more, meaning that in the short-term most of the new capacity will be available to serve electric generation. These projects should help ease some of the stress that cold winter weather places on our increasingly gas-dominated electric system. If the region’s many clean energy advocates can help it, we will also continue to accelerate investment in our cheapest resource—energy efficiency—and local, zero-carbon renewable projects like wind and solar that help reduce demand for fossil fuels, in the winter and year-round.

Skiers at Jiminy Peak ski resort in Hancock, Massachusetts.

In the meantime, we need to move past panic over illusory energy shortages and the idea that building every costly energy project on the table will inevitably lower costs. Unfortunately, these are the very arguments we continue to hear in favor of spending billions on new energy infrastructure now. According to these arguments, the winter was a minor, lucky reprieve from the dire trend of higher prices driven by insufficient gas pipeline capacity and power plant retirements. From this perspective, there are huge risks of “inaction,” with “action” meaning large new ratepayer-funded bets on new gas pipelines and also new power line infrastructure.

But all infrastructure is not created equal: there are promising approaches to addressing winter challenges that make greater use of existing infrastructure and that are tailored to meet market needs. In CLF’s view, we should favor these approaches first and evaluate any big new investments—especially those funded by the public and with major ramifications for climate, the environment, and local communities—with extreme caution and exacting scrutiny.

Some of the more important questions to answer: do the supposed benefits (lower wholesale electric prices) outweigh the costs (of constructing new projects with financing from electric customers)? Do alternatives to big new infrastructure provide a better bargain by providing similar benefits but lower costs?  While a number of studies completed before this winter have been cited as evidence of benefits, those studies posit that new infrastructure will lower wholesale energy prices by more than the cost of the infrastructure. However reputable or independent the authors of these studies may be (and many are far from the latter), their numbers are based on speculation about what energy markets will do in the future—speculation that will certainly be wrong in one direction or another.

This winter suggests that wholesale prices can come down a lot without big new projects subsidized by electric customers, with modest approaches that cost much less. If that’s true, the money devoted to new infrastructure would add to customer bills with little benefit, at a time when across New England (in New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, and Maine just this month) proven strategies to advance our clean energy future like efficiency and renewables are at risk of being deprived of the public policies and support they need.

#2: Gas pipelines aren’t a panacea in cold weather.

To some, February’s cold weather and higher wholesale market prices still prove the need for much more pipeline capacity to feed gas-fired power plants. So what should we make of this February’s higher prices?

While New England typically had higher natural gas prices than other parts of the country, the whole Northeast—including areas with robust, brand-new pipelines and closer access to Marcellus shale gas—experienced price spikes during the month, as wave after wave of Arctic air boosted heating and electric demand. Here are snapshots of electric market prices in New York and the mid-Atlantic spiking higher than in New England during February’s cold weather:

This was a more modest repeat of the same phenomenon last January during the “polar vortex” cold spell. The following chart compares natural gas prices at a hub in eastern Pennsylvania with New England prices.

Daily Wholesale Natural Gas Prices

Clearly, both New England and the rest of the country have considerable room for improvement in coordinating the gas and electric markets to ensure timely, predictable, and cost-effective delivery of gas to power plants when heating and electric needs are both high. The benefits of additional LNG imports and ISO-NE’s modest efforts this winter are strong evidence that better use of existing gas infrastructure and additional market improvements—including ISO-NE’s forthcoming “pay for performance” changes to the forward capacity market—can help meet our cold weather challenges. With so many market variables, it is not clear that adding huge amounts of pipeline capacity will necessarily or cost-effectively reduce market prices, as the infrastructure studies that use data from before this winter so confidently predict.

Nor is it clear that more pipelines will consistently price oil or coal out of the market during the coldest weather. As I pointed out in the second post in this series, New England’s dirtier power sources actually ran less this winter than last winter, and we can better avoid using them at all by improving the gas supply and storage products available to gas-fired generation and deploying more no-carbon (and winter-peaking) resources like wind.

#3: Scare tactics aren’t helpful; finding solutions that don’t break the bank or worsen the true crisis of climate change should be the objective.

With high retail electric bills making headlines and arriving in real customers’ mailboxes, this winter provided fertile ground for arguments that the region’s energy costs pose an existential threat to its economy and competitiveness. The term “energy crisis” was everywhere (and still is).  There are two big problems with this frame for our winter energy challenges.

The first is that it’s a gross exaggeration. As I’ve shown in this series, there wasn’t a “crisis” in New England’s energy market this winter, whether we’re talking about energy supplies, the reliability of the electric grid, or wholesale energy costs. That’s why I tracked wholesale energy data all winter with a facetious Twitter hashtag, “#winterenergycrisis,” with a goal of showing that reality was diverging from the rhetoric:

 

Certainly wholesale energy costs were quite high last winter, and retail electricity prices (set last fall on the fear of the same thing happening again) were quite high this winter. CLF believes that the region can and should work on market and policy solutions, including needed infrastructure. But calling these problems a crisis creates the false impression that we need to mobilize a massive, all-hands-on-deck response; after this winter’s modest market changes made such a big difference, it’s hard to see any wisdom or prudence in reacting this way.

The second problem with the “crisis” frame for winter energy costs is that the alarm is deeply misplaced. It detracts from graver threats to our region’s economy, like this winter’s crippling of Greater Boston’s public transportation infrastructure. At the very top of the list is the undeniable crisis facing the region and beyond: climate change.

As we seek to address the climate crisis, we should avoid building more of the same long-lived, polluting, and costly systems we have today than are absolutely needed, whether as a supposed solution to winter energy costs or otherwise. Our focus should be speeding the transition to an innovative, self-sufficient, much cleaner, less volatile energy market that is less—not more—reliant on fossil fuels from outside New England. From this perspective, the ongoing retirements of inefficient, polluting power plants are not a strategic risk, as ISO-NE describes them; they are an opportunity and a necessity.

A young bull moose in a bog near the Connecticut River in Pittsburg, New Hampshire.

Whether impelled by legal requirements like Global Warming Solutions Acts or federal climate regulations, or by the clarion calls of disappearing wildlife, coastal destruction, and increasingly extreme weather, our region’s leaders should be devoting their efforts to building an affordable, decarbonized energy future that stops making climate change worse. Our cleanest resources—efficiency and renewables—are affordable and getting more cost-competitive all the time. Moving us to an energy system with those resources at the center should be New England’s most pressing priority.

Read Part I of this series: The Difference a Year Makes

Read Part II of this series: Why This Winter Was Different

(Photos: Skiers at Jiminy Peak ski resort in Hancock, Massachusetts; A young bull moose in a bog near the Connecticut River in Pittsburg, New Hampshire. Copyrights Jerry and Marcy Monkman/EcoPhotography)

The Final Word on Winter in New England’s Energy Markets, Part II: Why This Winter Was Different

Mar 25, 2015 by  | Bio |  2 Comment »

As late as last fall, many observers and traders watching the New England energy markets were predicting a repeat of last year’s very expensive winter, or worse. By January, CLF was able to post an update showing that those predictions weren’t materializing. In fact, the expected energy crisis was fizzling, with much lower wholesale power and natural gas prices than last year and no signs that gas-fired power plants were struggling to get fuel. We laid out a series of market shifts and changes that were making a difference.

Two kids cross country skiing in a snow storm on a woods road near Greenville, Maine.

As I mentioned in the first part of this series on this winter in New England’s energy markets, February was a major test for New England’s energy system. It was the coldest February in modern times, with bitter cold, record-breaking snowfall, and no “February thaw” whatsoever. Adding to retirements of several major non-gas power plants in 2014, some of New England’s remaining non-gas power plants experienced outages or problems. The whole Northeast was much colder than normal, driving record natural gas demand for heating and electric generation. On February 2, New England set an all-time record for daily gas demand of 4.21 billion cubic feet.

Despite the challenges, the factors we identified in January helped keep prices in check and the lights on for the balance of the winter:

28055549

  • Thanks to the global crash in oil prices, fuel oil was available for about half last year’s price, moderating the price of liquefied natural gas, which is linked to oil prices. During the coldest weather, especially in February, lower oil prices directly lowered power prices as well because, with oil cheaper than spot-market gas, oil-fired power plants (or gas-fired power plants with the capability to run on oil) were setting electric market clearing prices. While it’s not good news that more-polluting resources like oil and coal plants were able to run, they did not run as much this winter as last winter (even accounting for dual-fuel oil demand):

Capture

  • Regional grid operator’s ISO-NE market changes implemented in December, including hourly offers and re-offer opportunities, improved price transparency and formation, which clearly helped dampen and lessen the duration of cold weather price spikes. Other gas-electric coordination steps encouraged by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission also made a difference. What we’ve seen in March is a rapid drop in prices from February levels, something that didn’t happen last year in similarly cold weather.

This winter, we also saw reasons to worry less about two other concerns: the very real and legitimate hardships of this winter’s high retail prices for ordinary customers and the ongoing retirements of older power plants.

  • With lower oil prices, households and businesses also have been paying much less for oil and petroleum fuels this winter. A January government estimate puts these savings in 2015 at $1500 for the average family that both drives and heats with oil, and at $750 for the average family that drives and heats with other fuels. These savings are totally offsetting (and more) the $30 to $50 monthly increases in average electric bills that some New England households are facing through the first part of the year. And as noted in the first part of this series, summer electric rates are on the way down; when 2015 is over, average electric supply rates for the year will be higher than in 2014, but by far less than the eye-catching percentages cited in the news reports announcing this winter’s retail increases.
  • In February, ISO-NE held its annual auction to buy electric generating capacity to meet the region’s electric needs three years from now. As my colleague Jerry Elmer noted at the time, that auction successfully procured an overall surplus beyond the very high “installed capacity requirement” that ISO-NE has determined is appropriate. With somewhat higher prices than past auctions, ISO-NE’s capacity market is serving its purpose—to ensure that new power plants, especially wind and natural gas, will be replacing the plants set to retire in the next few years. Another signal of a strong market for new resources came earlier this month, when 16,000 megawatts of new generating capacity (an amount equivalent to nearly half of the region’s power plant fleet) expressed an interest in participating in next year’s capacity auction for 2019-2020. Analysts are expecting capacity prices to decline in future auctions as these new power plants compete against each other. Our region’s growing energy efficiency and solar investments will also moderate peak demand and keep overall electric demand flat, as acknowledged in ISO-NE’s plan to count behind-the-meter solar generation in calculating that demand and its energy efficiency forecast.

With this winter behind us, what are its lessons for future winters—and our region’s energy future? With massive proposals for new energy infrastructure on the table, with supposed goals of solving our winter energy problems, what should New England do next? I will explore these issues in the next post in this series.

I followed New England’s energy markets all winter on Twitter at #winterenergycrisis. A Storify collecting my best tweets, with more market data and charts, is here.

Read Part I of this series: The Difference a Year Makes

Read Part III of this series: Some Lessons from a Calm, Cold Winter

(photo: Two kids cross country skiing in a snow storm on a woods road near Greenville, Maine, copyright Jerry and Marcy Monkman/EcoPhotography)

The Final Word on Winter in New England’s Energy Markets, Part I: The Difference a Year Makes

Mar 24, 2015 by  | Bio |  3 Comment »

With the sap finally running, the snow slowly melting, and the vernal equinox past, it’s time to look back on winter in the New England energy markets.

Despite dire predictions and some of the worst winter weather on record, there wasn’t a crisis. Modest market shifts made a huge difference, driving down prices, assuring the lights stayed on, and calling into question the wisdom of the region making big new bets on gas pipelines and transmission infrastructure.

In this multi-part series, I will run down the market data on what happened this winter, offer a few explanations, and explore the lessons we should take from the experience as the region looks to its energy future.

Sap buckets on maple trees on a dirt road in Pomfret, Vermont.

Last year, after a very expensive winter in New England’s wholesale energy markets, many were predicting the worst this winter. Ever higher prices. Economic ruin and job losses. Maybe even rolling blackouts on the coldest days. As the leaves were changing colors, electric utilities throughout New England locked in winter power purchases at double the rates most were paying last summer. The newspaper articles and radio stories almost wrote themselves and even went national, as it seemed everyone was talking about energy costs and the apparent culprit—a severe deficit of gas pipeline capacity to transport cheap Marcellus shale gas from the mid-Atlantic and Midwest to heat New England’s buildings and to power our gas-heavy power plant fleet on cold days.

In mid-January, CLF was among the first to see that the supposedly inevitable New England winter energy crisis was fizzling. Natural gas and wholesale power prices were down compared to last year’s prices—way down. Gas from better-utilized pipelines and shipments of liquefied natural gas were amply supplying power plants, even on cold days. Despite higher electric bills, lower oil and gasoline prices were helping many consumers pay less overall for their energy needs than last winter.

Little did we know at the time that February would be among the coldest and stormiest in recorded New England history. While we can expect more weather extremes like this in future years thanks to climate change, February tested the system in ways that, if the pre-winter fears were borne out, would have brought us the full parade of horribles: rolling blackouts, even higher gas and power prices than last year, and major harm to the region’s economy.

In the end, as week after week of cold and snow battered the Northeast, prices in the energy markets did go up. But they didn’t match last year’s peak prices. Here is the final version of my chart showing hourly and daily average wholesale electricity prices on the New England electric grid, comparing last year’s and this year’s prices.

Hourly

(Keep in mind that $10 per megawatt-hour is the same price as 1 cent per kilowatt-hour. Typical homes use between 500 and 750 kilowatt-hours of electricity per month. The prices I’m analyzing relate only to the supply of electricity from power plants; electric bills also include a charge per kilowatt-hour to deliver the power through the transmission and distribution system and other fees and charges.)

In the end, despite the jump in prices in February, the peak weekly wholesale power price in New England was much lower than last winter, and the lowest winter peak in three years. In fact, that peak weekly price—about 15 ¢/kwh in late February—was less than some retail rates that utilities locked in last fall, not just for the winter but for the first six months of 2015. That’s how wrong last year’s predictions about winter prices were.

Weekly

It’s true that the cold drove up February power and natural gas prices, likely making the month the most expensive of the year. As a result, the region’s oil and coal power plants were temporarily able to compete, running more than in other seasons, when they barely run at all. But however you look at this winter—day-by-day, week-by-week, or month-by-month—wholesale power prices were below last year’s prices.

Monthly

Overall, from December 1 to March 20, prices were down 45%. That’s despite the fact that this winter was colder overall than last year, with a temperature in the Boston area about 4°F below historical averages and 1.5°F colder than last year.

These lower wholesale prices mean that it is very likely that next winter’s retail electric prices will be lower than this year’s—power futures for next January and February are now trading between 10 and 12 ¢/kwh, with the other winter months of December and March lower than that. We are already seeing dramatic reductions in retail electric prices for this summer; last week National Grid announced that its supply rate for Massachusetts customers will drop from 16 ¢/kwh to less than 9 ¢/kwh on May 1; this week, the New Hampshire utility Liberty Utilities announced summer rates of less than 7 ¢/kwh, down 55% from its winter rates.

In terms of reliability, the region’s electric grid didn’t miss a beat, despite unfortunately timed outages at the Pilgrim nuclear power plant that took that station offline for many days and the fact that four large non-gas power plants that were available last year—Mount Tom, Norwalk Harbor, Vermont Yankee, and Salem Harbor—are now retired. In the brutal cold and higher priced days of February, ISO-NE never once activated its long chain of alerts and precautions, known as Operating Procedure No. 4, that is triggered when system reliability is at immediate risk.

Why did the markets have such a different winter this year?  I will tackle that question in the next part of this series.

Read Part II of this series: Why This Winter Was Different

Read Part III of this series: Some Lessons from a Calm, Cold Winter

I followed New England’s energy markets all winter on Twitter at #winterenergycrisis. A Storify collecting my best tweets, with more market data and charts, is here.

(photo: Sap buckets on maple trees on a dirt road in Pomfret, Vermont, copyright Jerry and Marcy Monkman/EcoPhotography)

Smart Moves for Maine’s Electricity Grid

Mar 10, 2015 by  | Bio |  2 Comment »

Several years ago, Maine took a small but significant and unprecedented step toward modernizing its electric grid. Rather than implement a traditional “poles and wires” transmission build out to address growing electricity needs in the Boothbay Harbor region, the Maine Public Utilities Commission (PUC) approved an innovative pilot project.

GridSolar's Boothbay Pilot program is finding innovative ways to meet electricity demand without an expensive transmission rebuild.

GridSolar’s Boothbay Pilot program is finding innovative ways to meet electricity demand without an expensive transmission rebuild.

The Boothbay Pilot relies on so-called non-transmission alternatives, or NTAs, to reduce electric load in the region by 2 megawatts (MW). Using these alternatives eliminated the need for an $18 million transmission rebuild, while also improving energy efficiency, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and saving ratepayers approximately $3 million per year. A smart move. Now, the PUC has the opportunity to take many of the pilot’s concepts statewide.

Non-transmission alternatives are, as the name implies, alternatives to the traditional way of distributing electricity. For most of Maine’s power grid, state-regulated transmission and distribution utilities, such as Central Maine Power, transmit bulk electricity from a generation source – for example, natural gas, oil, or hydro – through power lines, substations, and distribution lines to your home. To ensure reliable and constant energy flow the power grid must be continually maintained and at times rebuilt or upgraded to meet demand.

Instead of expending ratepayer dollars on expensive transmission solutions, electric power needs can be met by various NTAs, including energy efficiency, passive electric power generation closer to the consumer (like solar panels or wind turbines), and active devices that can be switched on when needed to reduce load on the grid. These alternatives create a more efficient grid and reduce total power needed.

For the Boothbay regional Pilot program, GridSolar developed just such an NTA solution. In a case before the PUC, GridSolar has petitioned to become the state’s lead developer of smart grid technologies – a new entity allowed under the Maine Smart Grid Policy Act. While PUC staff recently recommended that the Commissioners deny GridSolar’s petition – in favor of putting the coordinator’s role out to bid for proposals – their report nonetheless recognizes the value in having an incentivized actor forwarding non-transmission alternatives to utilities’ business-as-usual transmission projects.

CLF is an intervening party to this case and has advocated for the PUC to create just such a statewide NTA Coordinator. Designating this role is another small but critical step toward a more efficient and modern energy future for Maine. Another smart move on which we should all agree.

Time to Act: Guest Post by Olivia Gieger

Mar 6, 2015 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

Last fall, CLF, Mass Energy Consumers Alliance, and four youth plaintiffs filed suit against the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection for failing to fully comply with the Global Warming Solutions Act. In this guest post, one of the teen plaintiffs, Olivia Gieger, explains why she’s joined the court fight to defend her climate future.

As a sophomore in high school, I am all too familiar with procrastination. That group project assigned a month ago and now due tomorrow? We had a month; why start early? It’s a group project; won’t someone else do it? In my experience, I can tell you, those all-nighter–inducing group projects never turn out well.

Don’t be the sophomore in high school.

This 2015, we have the technology to know that atmospheric carbon dioxide levels are rising at an alarmingly fast rate. We’ve had this technology since 1960 when carbon dioxide levels were at 315 parts per million (ppm). Now they’re at 395 ppm(1). We know that this carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, which captures heat energy and slows its release from air. While greenhouse gases are necessary in our atmosphere and are needed to keep us warm, an unnatural amount is strikingly dangerous. More greenhouse gases mean more heat held in the atmosphere, which means a hotter Earth.

Side effects of global warming are countless, and they are happening today. Sea levels are rising. Ice caps are melting. Forest fires are raging. Downpours are constant in the Northeast, yet droughts are ever more present in the West(2).

But, really, why should I care? Melting ice caps and a couple less polar bears don’t really affect me, right? I don’t live in California, so those wildfires don’t affect me, either. But other people are being impacted by the wildfires, the melting ice caps, the rising temperatures. The scary reality is that we all are. I may not know anyone who lives in California, but that’s where my food is grown. If there are droughts and wildfires, how is my family supposed to get some of our favorite fruits and vegetables that don’t grow here in Boston during the winter? And those melting ice caps affect a whole lot more than polar bears. When they melt, sea levels rise – not just at the North Pole, but globally. This means my favorite beaches on Martha’s Vineyard will be washed away. It means my favorite restaurants and museums – even my neighborhood – here in Boston will be underwater in my lifetime.

In order to do something about these concerns, I have filed a lawsuit, along with three other youth plaintiffs, against the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), because DEP has been procrastinating in fully complying with the Global Warming Solutions Act (GWSA). The GWSA requires DEP to pass regulations establishing declining greenhouse gas emissions limits for Massachusetts. But DEP has not done so. The purpose of the lawsuit is to force DEP to comply with the law, because it appears unwilling to do so on its own. Thanks to the support from my lawyers at Sugarman, Rogers, Barshak, & Cohen and Our Children’s Trust, we will ensure that DEP complies with the law.

So now my question is why? Why are we as a society being sophomores in high school about this? Why are we just waiting for someone else to solve this massive problem? We know the problems, and, better yet, we know the solutions. Using clean, renewable energy is one solution. Enough energy from the sun enters the Earth in one hour to power it for an entire year(3). This energy is unlimited, harmless to the environment, and virtually free. Sounds to me like it tops fossil fuels any day. It’s not just solar energy, however – wind power and hydropower are also unlimited and harmless to the environment. So why then are we oblivious to this? Why are we so incapable of making a change? We need to stop procrastinating. It is long past the time to include, encourage, and execute programs with wind and solar power as the energy of America. We cannot afford to be sophomores anymore; it’s time to graduate.

Works Cited:

  1. Pieter Tans, NOAA/ESRL (www.esrl.noaa.gov/gmd/ccgg/trends/) and Dr. Ralph Keeling, Scripps Institution of Oceanography (scrippsco2.ucsd.edu/).
  2. “The Current and Future Consequences of Global Change.”Global Climate Change: Vital Signs of the Planet. National Air and Space Association, n.d. Web. 14 Nov. 2014.
  3. “Solar Power Energy Information, Solar Power Energy Facts.”National Geographic. N.p., n.d. Web. 16 Nov. 2014.