Don't let New England region run out of gas

In late 2012, two years into his first term, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy announced a plan to meet more of the state’s heating and energy needs with natural gas. Business and industry embraced the new Comprehensive Energy Strategy.

It made sense. Horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing techniques had tapped huge deposits of natural gas contained in previously inaccessible shale deposits, boosting gas supplies and driving down prices. And while still a fossil fuel, and so a greenhouse gas, natural gas burns far cleaner than oil or coal.

Since that announcement, state policies have encouraged homes and commercial operations to convert from oil to natural gas for heating, where available. There has also been a steady increase in the percent of electricity coming from natural-gas fired power plants.

Connecticut has not acted in isolation. Soon after Malloy’s announcement, all six New England governors called for expanding natural gas power and boosting investment in infrastructure. Natural gas generators last year provided more than 40 percent of the six-state region’s electricity needs, according to ISO New England, the group responsible for managing electric power distribution across the region.

Natural gas should be seen as a supplement to, not a competitor with wind and solar renewable energy sources. Wind and solar are intermittent supply sources. Turbines don’t spin without wind and solar needs sun. So until battery storage technology improves, other fuel sources are necessary to fill the gap, and natural gas is a good option.

The problem is that while there has been an expansion in the number of homes heating with natural gas and in the electricity coming from gas turbines, there has been little progress in boosting natural gas supplies into the New England region.

The severe cold snap earlier this winter sent prices spiking as the mains feeding gas into the region could not keep up with demand. More oil was used to generate electricity and, along with demand for oil heat, also caused temporary shortages in that fuel and sent heating oil prices spiking as well.

More troubling is the situation New England faces in a few short years, warned ISO New England in its annual report. ISO ran two dozen scenarios through its computers to assess future supply and demand and found that, except for a few “optimistic cases,” sections of New England would experience rolling blackouts by 2024-2025 due to inadequate gas supplies.

The same shortages that could endanger the power supply could also create a crisis in meeting home heating needs.

Suppliers that might consider seeking approval to bring gas mains into New England are dissuaded by the level of regulation, the inconsistency in those regulations in the six states, and the certain NIMBY (not in my backyard) opposition they will face.

Enbridge Inc. had said its Access Northeast pipeline project would help address cost volatility and energy reliability problems, but it suspended planning for the project last year pointing to the difficulty in dealing with inconsistent policies among the states

As for community opposition, it would appear that while many like their high-def TVs, large capacity appliances and other conveniences of modern life, they are far less likely to accept the infrastructure that makes all that possible.

New England has to figure this out. With that level of energy uncertainty, the region will find it increasingly difficult to attract new industry or encourage expansion of existing businesses.

Concerns about natural gas supply also make it clear Connecticut is making the right decision in working with Millstone Power Station to develop pricing policies that assure the two-reactor nuclear station, which is critical to meeting energy demands, remains in operation.

The bottom line is that New England’s leaders should form a commission to explore the creation of a consistent regulatory framework for the construction of more gas mains into this part of the country. It will do no good to have successfully expanded gas dependency if the means of supplying that dependency remains lacking.

 

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Editorial Page Editor Paul Choiniere, Managing Editor Tim Cotter, Staff Writer Julia Bergman and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

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