Long cold snap could put Connecticut’s power supply at ‘heightened risk,’ official warns

Photo of Luther Turmelle
FILE PHOTO: ISO New England CEO Gordon van Welie

FILE PHOTO: ISO New England CEO Gordon van Welie

File photo

The top executive for Connecticut’s electric grid operator on Monday warned of a “heightened risk” to the region’s power supply if there is a particularly long cold snap this winter.

Gordon van Welie, ISO New England's president and chief executive officer, said in a written statement that higher prices globally for oil and natural gas, which are used to run power plants, “as well as pandemic-related supply chain challenges, could limit their availability in New England if needed to produce electricity this winter.”

“The region would be in a precarious position if an extended cold snap were to develop and these fuels were not available,” van Welie said. “It's a low probability event, but how low is really impossible to answer.”

ISO-NE officials are “feeling more vulnerable” after witnessing the mass power outages that occurred in Texas last winter.

“What happened there changed everything,” van Welie said. “We are in the midst of a seismic shift to our energy system and we know we're operating close to the edge. This problem is not going to go away and it’s going to gradually get worse.”

However, he said ISO-NE expects to meet the region’s demand for electricity if the winter is mild.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is projecting a warmer-than-average winter in New England, but according to van Welie, a warmer-than-average season does not eliminate the threat of prolonged stretches of cold weather.

“In recent years, oil and LNG have filled the gaps when extended periods of very cold weather have constrained natural gas pipeline supplies,” he said. “Highlighting these concerns is not meant to cause undue alarm at this early stage. Rather, by identifying and sharing the conditions under which the power system would be most challenged, we hope to prepare the region that if these conditions arise, the ISO, utilities, and government officials may ask for conservation of electricity and gas usage as an early step in avoiding or minimizing the need for emergency actions.”

ISO New England could import emergency power from neighboring regions, calling on power system reserves, and asking businesses and residents to voluntarily conserve energy.

In a worst-case scenario, the system operators would be forced to call for controlled power outages to protect the overall grid. Though a drastic step, controlled outages prevent a collapse of the power system that would take many days or weeks to repair.

Frank Reynolds, president of Avangrid’s electric and natural gas utility operations in Connecticut and Massachusetts, including United Illuminating, said UI officials are working to communicate with customers “that we will take every step we can in an attempt to avoid a worst-case scenario.”

“We want to communicate that we are doing everything we can right now to have as minimal effect on our customers as possible,” Reynolds said. UI has 341,269 customers in 17 communities in the New Haven and Bridgeport areas.

Peter Brandien, vice president of system operations and market administration for ISO-NE, said if circumstances and weather conditions permit, “we're going to try to give the public as much advance” notice as possible about actions that need to be taken.

“We're trying to educate people where we are headed and that one way to avoid the worse case is through conservation,” Brandien said. “We're going to ask consumers to use the same sort of measures they would do on a hot summer day. And the more conservation that we get, the less extreme actions we're going to have to take.”

If controlled outages are needed, ISO-NE would direct local electric distribution utilities to lower electricity demand in their areas.

ISO New England officials anticipate demand for electricity will peak at 19,710 megawatts during average winter weather conditions of 10 degrees and 20,349 megawatts if temperatures reach below average conditions of 5 degrees. These projections are both about 2 percent lower than last year’s forecasts.

New England’s winter peak record was set during a January 2004 cold snap when electricity usage reached 22,818 megawatts. One megawatt of energy provides enough power for 4,000 homes, van Welie said.

Fuel supply problem for electric power plants have been an ongoing issue for decades. Constraints on the natural gas distribution system limit the availability of fuel for natural gas-fired power plants, because home heating customers are required to be served first because of the way their service contracts are structured.

When natural gas is not available or is higher priced than alternate fuels, the wholesale markets will clear a mix of other resources, including liquid natural gas, coal or oil. Over the last eight years, roughly 7,000 megawatts from plants using these resources have shut down or announced plans to close in the coming years.