Clean energy transmission for New England

By Ed Krapels, founder and director of Anbaric

As ISO New England meets today to review our region’s energy needs, last winter might seem a distant memory. But for the agency responsible for literally keeping our lights on—and our iPhones charged and machine shops humming—it is a key moment.

Despite the record-setting snowfall in 2015, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reported that “2014 was the warmest year across global land and ocean surfaces since records began in 1880…Including 2014, nine of the 10 warmest years in the 135-year period of record have occurred in the 21st century.”

New England is a region that fully recognizes this trend. It has committed to reducing its greenhouse gas footprint by making the transition to cleaner, more efficient, and less expensive electric energy.

Debates about the relative merits of wind vs. hydro, of onshore vs. offshore, of in-state vs. out-of-state energy, and the future role of solar energy have gone on for years. Meanwhile, existing environmental regulations and market forces are shutting down oil, coal, and nuclear plants, and we have become more and more dependent on natural gas.

So, New England decision makers – including those meeting later today at the ISO meeting — are faced with the urgent question of how to increase the supply of clean energy and contain the region’s growing dependence on natural gas. To achieve renewable energy targets, and reduce the electric sector’s carbon footprint, large quantities of clean energy are needed.

The electric grid over which all this energy flows is fundamental. It, too, must change in order for us to make the transition to cleaner energy.   Our current system was built to support large, central power stations fueled by coal and nuclear energy. To make the change to more distributed energy resources with more renewable energy content – wind, solar and hydro – the grid must change. Roof top solar, distributed generation, micro-grids, the integration of offshore and onshore wind projects, hydroelectricity from just beyond our borders will all be part of the solution but all call for use and expansion of our electric grid in an unprecedented way. This is the challenge the ISO System Plan addresses at today’s meeting.

The broader question for New Englanders is how best to substantially expand the amount of affordable, clean energy in a way that’s acceptable? New England states have decided what kind of energy they want; to fulfill that vision we must now decide how to get it here.

The landscape is littered with failed energy and infrastructure projects. Siting and constructability is important. Given energy projects that appear to be stuck in permitting hell, what can actually get built? So which infrastructure projects or strategies should we select that take on these questions as efficiently as possible? Transmission projects that combine solutions, such as those that can delivery wind energy and hydroelectricity over the same line in order to meet greenhouse gas reduction goals and RPS goals would represent efficient investments in infrastructure. Today’s ISO meeting and an upcoming hearing in the state later this month will be key public moments on this issue.

Done right, the transition of our electric grid will result in a change to cleaner, more efficient and less expensive electricity.