Opinion: Clean energy can help solve New England’s gas problems

The following commentary was written by Adam Gallaher, a Ph.D. student at the University of Connecticut who studies energy and electricity issues in Connecticut and New England. See our comment guidelines for more information.

Connecticut and New England have a natural gas problem, the likes of which have recently appeared in consumers’ utility bills.

On November 4, 2021, the Connecticut State Consumer Advisory Board released a notice warning consumers an imminent increase in the electricity supply tariff. Many factors influence supply rates, such as the price of natural gas, increased demand for electricity and extreme weather conditions. Natural gas prices are upper they have been since February 2014.

The recent Nor’easter coldly reminded us of New England’s dependence on natural gas. By reducing our reliance on natural gas and investing in renewable energy instead, New Englanders could see reduced rate increases and a stable electricity supply.

Natural gas is the primary fuel source used to generate electricity and the secondary fuel source for home heating. However, unlike other parts of the United States, New England is located “at the end of the pipeline”, leading to bottlenecks in the network during periods of high demand, mainly felt during harsh winters when the supply changes to meet the heating needs of the house. During these times, New England is forced to use high-emission fuels such as coal and oil to meet demand. When the pipelines are in operation, power producers draw on imports of liquefied natural gas (LNG), a global commodity sensitive to price volatility.

Twice a year, Connecticut’s two major electric utilities, Eversource Energy and United Illuminating, adjust the standard electricity supply rate after approval by the Public Utility Regulatory Authority. This is the price that consumers pay for the production of electricity. These tariffs end up being passed on to the generating facilities and not the utility companies. The new rates come into effect on January 1 and July 1 and are blocked for the 6 months covering these two dates. The Consumer Advice Bureau reports that Eversource and United Illuminating customers will see an increase of 37% and 14%, respectively, over the January 1, 2021 service rate.

By now you may be thinking that the temperatures winter expected to be above average, why have supply rates increased over the past winter?

The answer lies in how the majority of our electricity is generated. Natural gas is the primary fuel source for electricity generation in New England and Connecticut, meeting 53% and 56% of overall demand respectively. Even though the production of natural gas in the United States reaches historic records in 2019Connecticut, and more broadly New England, continue to face infrastructural constraints and are sometimes in the hands of the global LNG market.

Over time, there have been many opportunities for gas pipeline expansions across New York. However, these projects have been repeatedly close in the name of reducing emissions. Although the opposition is motivated by good intentions, the result has been to rely on higher-emitting electricity generation during times of high demand. As New England continues to electrify fossil fuel sectors and personal transportation moves from fossil fuels to electricity, Connecticut and New England will continue to experience mini power crises each winter, as will the recent spike in supply rates.

There is never a single solution to these complex problems. One way to increase electricity supply while reducing dependence on natural gas would be to develop the highly controversial Hydro-Quebec transmission line. If built, the line would provide nearly 1,200 megawatts of clean electricity, enough to power 1 million homes. Another solution is to continue the supply and expansion of offshore wind. At June 7, 2019, Connecticut’s Department of Energy and Environmental Protection released a request to purchase up to 2,000 megawatts of offshore wind power by 2030. Less than a year later, the Massachusetts increased its supply to 4,000 megawatts by 2027.

While our natural gas issues won’t be resolved anytime soon, it’s now up to the residents of Connecticut and New England to think about what’s most important to them. Do we want to continue to depend on natural gas and possible future price increases in electricity supply tariffs? Or clean renewable resources that can reduce demand from natural gas-fired power plants when home heating diverts supply? Only time will tell what the real solution is, but for now, my vote is in favor of renewable energy.

About Keith Tatum

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