Natural-gas Curbs Hurt Environment

Opinion

By Bob Rio

A shortage of natural-gas capacity during the December-January cold snap added $1.7 billion to the electric bills of business and residential customers in New England while erasing all the environmental benefits from solar energy in Massachusetts during 2017.

Now you know why Massachusetts employers support the idea of expanding natural-gas infrastructure in the region.

New data released this month by the Massachusetts Coalition for Sustainable Energy (MCSE) and compiled by Concentric Energy Advisors underscores the economic and environmental damage wrought by our energy status quo.

Natural-gas supplies in the region are tight during the winter. Despite abundant supplies just a few states away, pipeline infrastructure to get it here is inadequate, and efforts to address this issue have been stymied by those who believe upgrading our natural-gas infrastructure will stall progress on transitioning to clean energy.

Electricity generators simply don’t have enough natural gas to operate during the bitter cold because most of the available gas is used to serve businesses and homeowners.

To satisfy the increased demand for electricity, power plants burn stored backup oil and coal. The lights stay on, but greenhouse-gas emissions increase exponentially since oil and coal emit more carbon than natural gas. The cold-weather shortage of natural gas has become so common in recent winters that power generators are paid to store oil, whether or not it is needed, as sort of an insurance policy funded by ratepayers through higher electric rates.

According to the Concentric report, the amount of coal and oil burned during just a two-week period generated 1.3 million tons of extra greenhouse-gas emissions over what would have been emitted if gas had been available. The ratepayer cost was $1.7 billion higher than the previous winter — most of which will show up in next winter’s energy bills. In fact, Eversource recently sought a 15% increase in electric rates for customers in Western Mass. for the period July through December.

How much is 1.3 million tons? The extra greenhouse gases negated all the greenhouse-gas savings from all the solar energy produced in Massachusetts throughout 2017. It’s a problem that cannot be solved by adding more solar capacity, since the highest need for natural gas is in the winter, when solar output is at its lowest.

Had the cold period continued (or if another came later in the year), brownouts would likely had occurred. ISO-NE, the regional power-grid operator, reports that the system was about three days away from crashing, as some plants were running out of oil and had to curtail their output.

This dangerous mix of rising costs, rising emissions, and potential brownouts comes at a time when other states are dangling low energy costs in front of Massachusetts employers to persuade those companies to expand elsewhere. It’s not a tough sell — our energy costs are nearly double those of states in other regions of the country.

Associated Industries of Massachusetts, along with other members of the Coalition for Sustainable Energy, support a balanced approach to address the region’s energy problems. That approach embraces renewables — AIM has supported the development of both hydro power and offshore wind — while at the same time acknowledging the stresses on our current system and the economic and environmental damage that is occurring.

Bob Rio is AIM’s senior vice president, Government Affairs.

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