Keep It In The Ground Policies Are Harming New England Residents
The cold front that recently battered the New England brought frigid temperatures and a harsh reality to residents and policymakers about the importance of their energy portfolio. Winter weather challenges are not unfamiliar to New England residents, but successive policy interventions from activist organizations have reduced their natural gas resources to stay warm and power their homes. Proponents of electrification mandates are threatening affordable space heating options, and “Keep It In The Ground” policies pushed by environmental organizations are threatening the reliability of the region’s grid.
A High Carbon Alternative
New England has a complicated history with the cold and its energy supply. The region is plagued by low temperatures and an anti-fossil fuel activist “Keep It in The Ground” campaign that has convinced policymakers to put lofty and unattainable goals above the immediate needs of their constituents. The region has suffered repeatedly from polar vortexes and cold fronts that have spiked electricity prices and caused outages for tens of thousands of homes and businesses.
The policies to block additional natural gas pipeline capacity have run counter to their original purpose as the region has turned to more carbon intensive resources to meet the seasonal demand. The resulting lack of pipelines has raised natural gas prices between 132 to 200 percent and thanks to a constrained supply, New England power plants have been burning fuel oil – one of the dirtiest resources in the energy mix – for electricity generation. Starting January 7, fuel oil accounted for 20 to 25 percent of power generation.
The decision to burn fuel oil was probably a result of the blowback the region got in 2018 after importing Russian natural gas over neighboring imports from the Marcellus and Utica shale patch.
According to Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm, Russia’s gas is the “dirtiest form of natural gas on Earth.” It’s ironic that the United States’ natural gas exports are helping to decarbonize Europe’s gas imports by displacing Russian fuel, only to have those exports find their way into the United States.
Activist attempts to remove natural gas from the fuel mix has only succeeded to increase emissions and put the region’s climate goals one step further out of reach.
A Cost to Electrify
As restrictive policies have increased natural gas prices, residents are seeing the cost in their utility bills. New England ratepayers are nearing a four year high for power, and states in the Northeast homeowners regularly pay more than the national average for electricity prices. According to New England ISO and S&P Global, New England power prices increased by more than 120% year on year in October.
Amid these price increases, activists like Electrify NY and RMI are encouraging residents to change from heating oil or natural gas to electric space heating. New York City recently joined the electrification movement, and New York state might follow.
However, much like the backward success of their keep it in the ground policies, blocking natural gas resources from consumers would only force New York to rely on coal to meet the increased demand. According to neighboring Pennsylvania State Senator Dan Lughlin:
“To ban natural gas to heat your homes and businesses in an entire state means certainly a third will be powered by coal and that’s more harmful to the environment. It’s a fool’s errand.”
And it would do nothing to ease the cost of energy for residents. New York Senator Chuck Schumer had to push for $100 million in additional federal funds to the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) last October to meet existing energy expenses.
It should come as no surprise then that U.S. Sen. Edward Markey (D-MA) and U.S. Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-NY), have introduced a bill that would expand the LIHEAP program – both are representatives of high electric costs and state’s looking to electrify. While their desire to keep energy affordable is admirable, their states’ plan to electrify would make the increased funding more necessary for their constituents and still quickly burn through the additional funds.
A Grid Under Stress
Transferring residential heating demand to electricity would threaten a regional grid that is already suffering under cold weather and seasonal peaks.
In December, New England’s grid operator warned of power outages if an extended cold snap grips the region this winter and fuel supplies become strained from demand spikes.
Gordon van Welie, president and chief executive officer of the New England ISO, commented on the threats the grid witnessed during Winter 2017-2018 to reporters at a news conference:
“There were many sleepless nights during that two-week period . . . because we realized we were getting close to the edge. But we didn’t have an effective way to communicate on how close we were and we didn’t want to panic people,” he said. “As luck would have it we made it through to the following week when the weather broke and the supply chain could catch up with us.”
And summarized the current condition:
“The almost 15 million people that live in this region need to understand that we are in a precarious position when it gets into extended extreme weather, particularly cold weather. This problem is not going to go away. It’s going to gradually get worse as a result of us needing to reduce the use of fossil fuels and because extreme weather I think is going to be a big variable in the equation.” (emphasis added)
As of Sunday, January 16, renewables accounted for 8 percent of electricity generation, with 60 percent of that percentage coming from the burning of refuse or wood.
Electrification of buildings and transportation will increase New England’s electricity demand by 1 percent annually, further stressing the grid. And while New England’s ISO is planning for greater inclusion of renewables, their 2021 Regional Systems Plan notes that “many of these resources are, at times, energy-constrained…”
If policymakers keep listening to activists to block pipelines and electrify everything, they will only succeed in burdening their residents and the regional grid. Current policies have already taken a toll on the reliability of New England’s generational capacity, with more states turning to dirtier resources like fuel oil and coal to meet seasonal demand because of self-imposed constraints to natural gas pipelines. Meanwhile, residents are paying for high prices seasonal peaks and are being threatened with higher energy costs as electrification mandates remove their natural gas space heating options.
If New England wants to insulate itself from the cold weather and protect its residents, it should invest in domestic natural gas supplies to reduce grid strain and costs to ratepayers. Residents shouldn’t be forced into a “heat or eat” dilemma because the state has to import Russian LNG to meet peak loads.