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Cold Snap: New England Doesn’t Need More Natural Gas

by Hannah Stewart

New Englanders aren’t likely to forget the cold snap that hit the region from Christmas Day to January 9th this past year. While the temperature was bone-chilling during those two weeks, the last thing that New England needs is more pipeline for natural gas.

Most news outlets who reported on the storm during that time referred to it as a “bombogenesis,” but the term itself shouldn’t be a cause for alarm. According to NOAA, “bomb cyclones” are an unusual phenomenon in terms of how quickly the storm intensifies, but they’re fairly common. In just the first two months of 2014 alone, there were 20 hurricane-force wind events and 14 of those were bomb cyclones. Cyclones normally occur when a mass of cold air collides with a mass of warm air. Bomb cyclones are a bit more extreme in that the air pressure within the storm drops at a rate of 24 millibars in 24 hours. All storms are areas of low pressure, but what made this particular cyclone so bad was that the extreme rate at which it fell intensified all of a normal storm’s effects. Wind speeds, for example, peaked at up to 12 mph higher than the 30-year historical average, making it the worst cold snap in a century.

Now, onto the role that natural gas played. When the weather turned cold, New Englanders turned up their thermostats, demanding more energy than normal. As a quick flashback to your high school economics class, when you have an open market, and supply remains constant, an increase in demand is going to lead to an increase in price. It is important to note that consumers’ gas bills, however, were safe from any price spike. As a MassLive article explains it, “home heating and commercial customers are guaranteed fuel deliveries, and gas companies enter into long-term fixed contracts to meet that need.” This means that consumers got first dibs on the gas that was piped into New England. Electricity-generating power plants had to compete for whatever was left in the pipe on the open market. The higher market price they paid during the unusually cold and damaging storm is why power plants are pushing for more pipelines now.

At some point during the cold snap, power plant operators decided that the price for natural gas was too high, and switched to burning oil instead. Burning oil creates more pollution than natural gas because the former produces far more carbon dioxide emissions than the latter. On a normal day, New England generates 49% of its electricity with natural gas, and only 1% with oil. During the cold snap though, natural gas produced only 24% of the power, while oil increased to 30%, and renewable energies matched natural gas in generated power. Over the course of 15 days, Massachusetts alone burned about 2 million barrels of oil, which is more than double the amount of oil burned by the state in all of 2016.

In the aftermath of the cold snap, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker’s administration has proclaimed that the existing infrastructure is inadequate to meet future winter electricity demands. ISO New England- the not-for-profit organization charged with coordinating and managing electricity transmission for New England- has since published a report that supports this claim. The report, titled Operational Fuel-Security Analysis, analyzed 23 possible future energy resource combinations and found that nearly all of them would result in energy shortages and blackouts by the year 2024-2025. The gas industry is urging the state to, “increase access to natural gas to help ward off potential reliability issues.”

There are a number of problems with this recommendation, starting with the Operational Fuel-Security Analysis (OFSA) itself. According to Synapse Energy Economics, the OFSA prediction that the non-electric natural gas demand will increase by 1.9% per year, more than double the historical trend, is unrealistically high; Synapse suggests that 0.7% is a more accurate forecast. Additionally, the scenarios failed to take into account the 2,200 MW of wind and solar energy that New England will need to add in order to meet the current Renewable Portfolio Standards.

If we ignore the ISO’s assumptions for a moment and run with the idea that even more pipeline is in fact needed, there are problems there too. The financing for such a project would cost customers, “who pay a monthly electric bill as much as $277 million over the lifetime of the pipeline,” which may be only about 40 years.

  Valentine's Day message from advocates at the MA state house outside Governor Baker's office. Photo Credit:  Gloucester Times .

Valentine's Day message from advocates at the MA state house outside Governor Baker's office. Photo Credit: Gloucester Times.

New England doesn’t need more pipeline, and environmental groups are speaking up about it. Clean energy advocates are calling for the Baker administration to remove natural gas from the state’s energy mix. Recently, the Massachusetts Senate endorsed a clean energy bill that would ban new natural gas infrastructure, set new emission reduction targets, and obtain 100% of the state’s electricity from only renewables by 2035. In support of these environmental goals, and in defiance of the Baker administration and the gas industry, local activists and members of the Mass Power Forward coalition gathered outside Baker’s office with a bouquet of roses, and paper heart valentines saying, “Break up with gas pipelines.” Numerous other groups and coalitions have voiced their support for clean energy pushes, for environmental justice, and a break away from fossil fuels.

We will be posting a follow up blog to this one in the coming weeks that takes a closer look at what a natural gas free grid could look like and what it would take for us to make that switch.