Angwin: Rolling blackouts are probably coming to New England

By Meredith Angwin

Rolling blackouts are probably coming to New England sooner than expected.

When there’s not enough supply of electricity to meet demand, an electric grid operator cuts power to one section of the grid to keep the rest of the grid from failing. After a while, the operator restores the power to the blacked-out area and moves the blackout on to another section. The New England grid operator (ISO-NE) recently completed a major study of various scenarios for the near-term future (2024-2025) of the grid, including the possibilities of rolling blackouts.

Meredith Angwin

Meredith Angwin is a retired physical chemist and a member of the ISO-NE consumer advisory group.

In New England, blackouts are expected to occur during the coldest weather, because that is when the grid is most stressed. Rolling blackouts add painful uncertainty – and danger – to everyday life. You aren’t likely to know when a blackout will happen, because most grid operators have a policy that announcing a blackout would attract crime to the area.

In early April, Exelon said that it would close two large natural-gas fired units at Mystic Station, Massachusetts. In its report about possibilities for the winter of 2024-25, ISO-NE had included the loss of these two plants as one of its scenarios. The ISO-NE report concluded that Mystic’s possible closure would lead to 20 to 50 hours of load shedding (rolling blackouts) and hundreds of hours of grid operation under emergency protocols.

When Exelon made its closure announcement, ISO-NE realized that the danger of rolling blackouts was suddenly more immediate than 2024. ISO-NE now hopes to grant “out of market cost recovery” (that is, subsidies) to persuade Exelon to keep the Mystic plants operating. If ISO-NE gets FERC permission for the subsidies, some of the threat of blackouts will retreat a few years into the future.

The foremost challenge to grid reliability is the inability of power plants to get fuel in winter. So ISO-NE modeled various scenarios, such as winter-long outages at key energy facilities, and difficulty or ease of delivering Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) to existing plants.

Ominously, 19 of the 23 of the ISO-NE scenarios led to rolling blackouts. The worst scenarios, with the longest blackouts, included a long outage at a nuclear plant or a long-lasting failure of a gas pipeline compressor.

A major cause of these grid problems is that the New England grid is heavily dependent on natural gas. Power plants using natural gas supply about 50 percent of New England’s electricity on a year-round basis. Pipelines give priority to delivering gas for home heating over delivering gas to power plants. In the winter, some power plants cannot get enough gas to operate. Other fuels have to take up the slack. But coal and nuclear generators are retiring, and with them goes needed capacity. In general, the competing-for-natural-gas problem will get steadily worse over time.

All the ISO-NE scenarios assumed that no new oil, coal, or nuclear plants are built, some existing plants will close, and no new pipelines are constructed. Their scenarios included renewable buildouts, transmission line construction, increased delivery of LNG, plant outages and compressor outages.

The one “no-problem” scenario (no load shedding, no emergency procedures) is one where everything goes right. It assumed no major pipeline or power plant outages. It included a large renewable buildout plus greatly increased LNG delivery, despite difficult winter weather. This no-problem scenario also assumes a minimum number of retirements of coal, oil and nuclear plants.

This positive scenario is dependent on increased LNG deliveries from abroad. Thanks to the Jones Act, New England cannot obtain domestic LNG. There are no LNG carriers flying an American flag, and the Jones Act prevents foreign carriers from delivering American goods to American ports.

We can plan to import more electricity, but ISO-NE notes that such imports are also problematic. Canada has extreme winter weather (and curtails electricity exports) at the same time that New England has extreme weather and a stressed grid.

To avoid blackouts, we need to diversify our energy supply beyond renewables and natural gas to have a grid that can reliably deliver power in all sorts of weather. When we close nuclear and coal plants and don’t build gas pipelines, we increase our weather-vulnerable dependency on imported LNG.

We need to keep existing nuclear, hydro, coal and oil plants available to meet peak demands, even if it takes subsidies. Coal is a problem fuel, but running a coal plant for a comparatively short time in bad weather is a better choice than rolling blackouts.

This can’t happen overnight. It has to be planned for. If we don’t diversify our electricity supply, we will have to get used to enduring rolling blackouts.

Meredith Angwin is a retired physical chemist and a member of the ISO-NE consumer advisory group. She headed the Ethan Allen Institute’s Energy Education Project and her latest book is “Campaigning for Clean Air.”

Images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Harvey McDaniel and Meredith Angwin

11 thoughts on “Angwin: Rolling blackouts are probably coming to New England

  1. Oh yes, you have all the solar panels and whirlygigs to generate electricity. Vermont can make power when the sun shines.

    But what about those dark days and of course nights. Has anyone thought to invest is solar powered flashlights? You’ll need them to find you way out to your solar powered backup generator. Batteries are the answer, right? What do you do with them when they no longer hold a charge? The landfill? Ooh, naughty thinking. Will they become like glass and plastic, not recyclable because there is a surfeit.

    Here’s an idea; burn cow chips. Vermont should have plenty for fuel unless you screwed the farmers so horribly, they went out of business.

  2. Am I missing something? All the liberal kooks in Montpelier thought heavily subsidised wind and solar were all that is needed to replace Yankee. look where we are now. Why should we be facing rolling blackouts???

      • Homer,

        1) Management has nothing to do with it.
        2) Meredith and other power system analyst have been predicting this for at least a decade.

        RE idiots in Massachusetts and Montpelier want to close down all the nuclear, coal, gas and oil plants and replace them with wind solar and whatever. Vermont Energy Independent!!!

        New England would need an 8 TWh battery system.

        The Tesla Powerpack system in Australia, the largest in the world, has a rated capacity of 100 MW/129 MWh delivered as AC. The system 1) smoothens the variable output of a nearby 315 MW French-owned wind turbine system, 2) prevents load-shedding blackouts and 3) provides stability to the grid, during times other generators are started in the event of sudden drops in wind or other network issues. Here is an aerial photo of the system on a 10-acre site. The installed cost of the Australian Powerpack system was about $50 million, or 50 million/129,000 = $388/kWh; this is a low price, because Tesla was eager to obtain the contract.

        The NE storage capacity should be adequate to deliver about 8 TWh as AC to the grid. See storage balance graph. The NE grid, on average, delivers 16,600 MW of power for 24 hours (398 GWh/d). If wind and solar were a large percentage of the electricity supply to the grid, and if there were a multi-day wind and solar lull in winter, likely with snow and ice on the solar panels, it would take many thousands of above Tesla Powerpack systems to supply electricity to the grid to serve demand, which could peak at 26,000 MW on cold winter days. The storage system would have to be capable to serve most of that peak.

        1) Maximum storage would be about 8 TWh delivered as AC to the grid. See table 4 and storage balance graph.
        Powerpacks required = 1.1, redundancy x 8 billion kWh as AC/129,000 kWh as AC = 68,217
        Total site area = 682,170 acres.
        Cost = 68,217 x $50 million = $3752 billion.

        2) Minimum storage would be about 3 TWh delivered as AC to the grid. See below storage balance graph
        Powerpacks required = 1.1, redundancy x 3 billion kWh as AC/129,000 kWh as AC = 25,581
        Total site area = 255,810 acres.
        Cost = 25,581 x $50 million = $1407 billion.

        All is explained in this article.

  3. This cannot be true, we have ruined almost every bit of open pastures in VT with a sea of solar
    panels. Then we have also ruined our majestic mountain tops with all sorts of Wind Mills and
    then we have houses installing a solar panel on their roofs. Where’s all that energy free
    energy going?

    Oh yeah, travel the state new construction everywhere. Go to Burlington they have a multitude
    of development 500 units here, 700 units and the list goes on there and the Colleges keep
    adding dorms and then the massive build Downtown. All being added to the same old
    power Grid.

    It shouldn’t be a problem. Right!

    • CHenry

      Wind and Solar System Capacity and Cost for New England:

      Wind System Capacity and Cost: (1.1, redundancy x 46863 x 1000)/(8766 x 0.30) = 19,602 MW of wind turbines, at a cost of about $44.5 billion for turbines, plus about $5 billion for transmission = $54.0 billion.

      Solar System Capacity and Cost: (1.1, redundancy x 44463 x 1000/2)/(8766 x 0.145) = 38,479 MW of solar panels, at a cost of $122.4 billion for solar, plus about $12 billion for transmission = $146.7 billion.

      – If off-shore wind were implemented (as it was by government mandate in Massachusetts), the capital costs for the off-shore part would be about 2 times on-shore. The capacity factors would be higher, but the c/kWh would be at least 2 times on-shore. See URL.

      – The high solar share assumes solar collectors would be integrated into roofs and walls of future buildings, and that such buildings would be highly insulated and sealed, and many such buildings would be energy-surplus buildings, with battery storage, so they could charge plug-ins at night.

  4. Well that solar power ought to take up the slack on those cold winter nights–oh wait, that won’t work. How about lunar power, that’s the ticket.
    Then there’s Hydro Quebec, but the problem is it’s partly French, which doesn’t work all the time.
    Coal, that’s cheap and reliable, but new plants need to be built. The enviro’s will delay that a few decades.
    Maybe we can get rebates on down comforters and stay in bed for the duration. But down is appropriated from a non-human species, definitely not PC. Synthetic stuffing is oil based. Fiberglas would be OK but a bit scratchy.
    Hand out the cyanide pills. That will end the problem for us. The somalis can burn our bones, after we have them kill us. Yeah, that’s the ticket!

  5. Thank Obama! He shut down the coal mines and even told us BEFORE he was elected the first time around, that he wanted to make electricity EXORBITANT in price, to decrease use and force us into wind and solar power. Here we are, dummies who voted for him. Here we are.

    • Peter,

      The Cost of Duck Curves due to Solar

      Duck curves are entirely due to too much solar generation during midday, i.e., a midday Tsunami. This requires the traditional generators to significantly ramp down their outputs. However, in late afternoon/early evening, solar being minimal, these same generators have to significantly ramp up their outputs to meet peak demand. The daily down and up ramping severely stresses 1) the traditional generators (causing more wear and tear, more Btu/kWh, more CO2/kWh) and 2) the grid.

      Grid operators have three approaches to deal with the duck curve, all of which are costly. However, the costs will not be charged to solar system owners, as that would impair the fantasy of solar being low-cost:

      1) Having adequate traditional plant capacity to enable changing grid operational practices and have more frequent power plant cycling (up and down ramping at part load), and more frequent cold starts and stops, and increased synchronous hot standby, etc.
      2) Shifting part of demand to midday so solar can meet parts of the load that would not normally be provided in the middle of the day.
      3) Require owners of rooftop solar, mostly residential, and owners of field-mounted solar, mostly utilities, to have adequate battery system capacity to store their midday solar electricity, instead of just dumping it onto the grid for the owners of traditional generators to deal with.

      With the possible exception of those in equatorial latitudes, every jurisdiction in the world that commits to include more than, say, 20% solar in its future generation mix likely will reach a duck curve threshold where daily ramping and storage/curtailment/load-shifting requirements become unmanageable and too expensive.

      The level at which this threshold is reached will vary depending on local conditions, but it will generally be lower at higher latitudes than at lower latitudes, and could be as low as 10% at high latitudes; German solar in 2017 = 39.9/654.8 = 6%; wind 106.6/654.8 = 16.3%. For now, Germany still manages 6%, because it is “allowed” to spread its excess solar electricity at near zero or negative cost to nearby grids.

      As much of the world’s electricity is generated and consumed at high latitudes (40 – 60) one has to question whether solar isn’t more trouble than it’s worth.

      • Peter,

        More on Duck Curves in California

        Figure 2 in the URL shows an up-ramp of about 13000 MW in 3 hours, or 40,000 MWh, delivered as AC to high voltage grids.

        If all coal, gas, oil and nuclear plants were shut down, and wind and solar were near zero in late afternoon/early evening, and almost all of the electricity were supplied by battery systems, the capital cost would be at least 40000 x 1000 x $400/kWh = $16 billion.

        The battery systems have an AC-to-AC round-trip loss of about 20%, and would need to be charged and discharged several times during the other 21 hours. See Appendix.

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