New England grid operators, regulators combat vulnerabilities

Norwich — Grid operators at ISO New England's control room in Holyoke, Mass., watch the region wake up in real time, as people turn on their kitchen lights, coffeemakers and ovens, illuminating data points on hundreds of screens showing the rise in electricity use.

"You can think of ISO as the air traffic controller for the power grid," Eric Johnson, ISO New England's director of external affairs, told a group of business and energy leaders Wednesday at a Chamber of Commerce of Eastern Connecticut meeting in Norwich. "Our job is to make sure that we have resources online to meet all the changes in demand throughout the day."

ISO New England and regulators say that job is becoming more challenging quickly, as the grid faces an unprecedented blend of vulnerabilities.

Johnson and Rob Klee, Department of Energy and Environmental Protection commissioner, painted a picture of a grid under siege from climate change, cyberthreats, potential closures of major generators and a growing reliance on natural gas despite no new major pipeline projects in the works.

"Last year, almost half of the electricity in New England came from natural gas, up from about 15 percent in 2000," Johnson said. "There's a physical limit on how much gas can flow through the pipes ... and most of the gas-fired power plants are idle in wintertime."

The region's increased reliance on natural gas coincides with the decline of aging oil and coal plants. But a recent ISO New England study shows reliability problems are heightened in winter, when natural gas pipelines are constrained.

More than a third of the region's electricity comes from nuclear power, Johnson said. A premature Millstone Power Station retirement would hamstring the grid severely, according to regulators and ISO New England.

Some advocates and analysts point to a lack of rolling blackouts as evidence that infrastructure is stronger than ISO New England has argued. Some environmental groups also are pushing for much heavier investments in renewables rather than new gas pipelines.

Johnson noted ISO New England, which also manages the wholesale energy market, is an independent group with no financial ties to energy companies and a neutral stance on resources and technology.

"Some folks like that," he said. "Some folks like that a little bit less."

Asked about the danger of physical or cyberattacks to the grid, Johnson noted the Massachusetts headquarters is physically secure with limited access.

ISO New England recently established a dedicated team monitoring a "cyber perimeter" 24/7, he said. The group shares cyberattack information with other ISOs and the FBI, when necessary. The system is not Internet-based; it is a private and encrypted network, Johnson said.

Solar, wind on the rise

Johnson and Klee noted that despite severe challenges, the grid is trending cleaner and more efficient.

New England states annually have invested $1 billion combined in energy efficiency, translating to New Englanders using less electricity in the years to come.

Johnson highlighted several transmission projects that could inject hydropower into the grid from Canada. He also noted a big boost in active and proposed solar and wind projects throughout New England.

"In January of 2010, we had about 40 megawatts of solar systemwide," Johnson said. "But there was policy direction to support solar. As of the end of last year, we had almost 2,400 megawatts."

Wind power projects seeking connections to the grid outnumbered natural gas proposals for the first time last year, totaling about 8,500 megawatts of new power.

Klee said Connecticut is in a coalition of 17 states that realize "we need to invest time, energy and resources" to combat climate change.

"Seawater and substations don't mix," Klee said, noting Connecticut had critical infrastructure "within a foot of being impacted" during Hurricane Irene and Superstorm Sandy. "We feel climate change in this community ... this new normal of dramatic weather events and extreme rainfall punctuated by long periods of drought. Our infrastructure was never built to handle that kind of fluctuation."

Klee said the Connecticut Institute for Resilience and Climate Adaptation estimates local sea levels will rise almost 20 inches by 2050. He urged the state to invest in more resilient buildings now rather than "paying for it later."

DEEP's recently updated Comprehensive Energy Strategy and bills from Gov. Dannel Malloy include aggressive greenhouse gas emissions reduction goals. The state is pushing for utilities to buy 40 percent of their electricity from renewables by 2030, Klee said.

The state also is seeking bids for offshore wind, fuel cell and anaerobic digestion projects.

Siting remains contentious issue

Klee said a growing number of governmental, business, environmental and faith groups were teaming up to find ways to boost efficiency, which improves the grid and eventually can bring down energy prices.

But siting projects, whether pipelines or solar or wind farms, continues to prompt contentious challenges among developers, officials, residents and activist groups.

In an interview, Daniel Moore of Eversource said regulators should better educate the public on the costs and environmental impacts of tough siting decisions, giving people a better picture on "the social good for the entire region."

Klee said acreage in Connecticut is at a premium and siting is a consistent debate.

He said regulators must explain the environmental and economic benefits of projects while considering, "Can you do it in a smarter way? Can you do it in a better place? Can you find those opportunities where they exist to reduce the conflicts with our open space farmland" and forestland?

Brownfield sites, landfills and municipal buildings also are good opportunities for renewable projects, Klee said.

Johnson said if renewable projects are rejected over siting concerns, oil and coal plants potentially could run longer.

"As operators, we're going to turn to whatever's running," he said. "If you say no to enough stuff, there's some emissions and price consequences."

b.kail@theday.com

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