Last Thursday, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) held a forum on the threat that our continued reliance on natural gas poses to our power supply every winter. It boils down to this: if we have a cold winter like the one we saw in 2013-2014, the supply of natural gas that reaches New England will be insufficient to heat our homes and building and also keep the lights on. It’s a grim possibility.
In the near term, panelists from power companies and state governments did not offer much in the way of optimism with many comments that “there is no silver bullet,” “our hands are tied,” “it’s just gas supply,” and “be prepared for a big rate shock next year.” And make no mistake, this is a big problem, and there aren’t any easy solutions for the coming winter besides one panelist’s suggestion to “pray for a warm winter.” But it’s also not a new problem or an unpredictable one. We’ve been hearing about it since at least 2005.
Representatives from Massachuesstes emphasized that they had spent that better part of a decade planning for a new gas pipeline, access to firm hydro resources, and offshore wind. None of these options have materialized as they had expected. Legal challenges and regulatory barriers make large-scale energy infrastructure projects a tenuous proposition, though these are exactly the investments we need to be making to solve the climate crisis.
Many panelists urged FERC to restructure markets to create a premium for power plants that purchased and stored more fuel or paid a higher price to ensure they had the first crack at the supply of natural gas that is available each winter. The premium paid to these plants would of course be passed on to the region’s ratepayers.
Fortunately, other solutions were more forward-looking: figure out how to build more transmission capacity so that we can more effectively utilize the region’s renewable energy potential, beef up our commitments to energy efficiency and load management, add storage to the grid, and, most crucially, get to work building the wind and solar facilities that will actually reduce the amount of power we generate with natural gas.
One thing is clear, the current system with more than half of the region’s power coming from polluting natural gas is not reliable and is in desperate need of new investments. Smart policy would ensure that those investments are not a band-aid for the fossil fuel plants that are on their way out but instead move us toward our long-term goals – 100% renewable energy. Here at home, this means legislators and regulators recognizing the hidden costs of fossil fuel power generation – tenuous winter reliability, a spiraling climate crisis, and rising fuel costs, just to name a few – and making a real commitment to our state being the kind of renewable energy leader that Vermonter’s rightfully expect us to be.