by conor bernstein

New England recognizes it has a dangerous fuel security problem on its hands. And a telling factor in that crisis is what it doesn’t have: fuel diversity in the form of coal capacity. New England’s overreliance on natural gas, a constrained gas delivery system, and inability to site and build alternatives is barreling towards a completely foreseeable disaster with no one seemingly capable of course correction.

With all stakeholders well aware of the problem, instead of getting better, New England’s fuel security challenges are getting worse. “We’re going into this winter basically crossing our fingers and hoping,” Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) member James Danly said of the situation.

There’s nothing even approaching a roadmap out of the crisis. FERC Chairman Richard Glick said of New England’s reliance on gas, “it’s not sustainable….  we essentially have to buy enough time to get those transmission lines built, to get the offshore facilities up and running and some of these other programs, demand response, up and running.” How much time is a painfully open-ended question.

Despite ardent support for renewable energy and decarbonization, New England is running into even more ardent opposition to siting and building it. “I’m really worried about how difficult we’ve made it in New England to build anything,” said Cheryl LaFleur, a former FERC commissioner who now chairs the ISO New England’s board of directors, the region’s grid operator. “If we’re going to use more renewables, we actually have to site them and build them….”

A Self-made Crisis

While it’s tempting to dismiss New England’s energy crisis as a regional problem, New England’s challenges have foreshadowed what is happening across much of the country.

New England dismantled nearly all its coal capacity and, with it, the essential dispatchable fuel diversity it provided. But that mistake, and the consequences still reverberating from it, is falling on deaf ears as the loss of coal capacity in other states continues to move much faster than the development of adequate alternatives. The construction of essential enabling infrastructure, like the vast new transmission networks needed to connect the nation’s best wind and solar resources to demand centers, is simply not moving at nearly the pace needed.  And as New England has found out, once well-operating coal capacity is gone, there is little you can do to replace it.

With natural gas prices quadrupling since the start of the pandemic — hitting a 14-year high in August — electricity prices are surging as well. Nationally, electricity prices have jumped nearly 16% in the last year, a key driver of inflation. But in New England, where gas is king, the pain is even sharper. Wholesale electricity prices are expected to double this winter from last. Not only is there well-founded fear New England may not be able to get the gas it needs during periods of peak demand, but consumers will be paying through the nose for a system teetering on the verge of collapse.

New England’s energy missteps are precisely what the rest of the country must avoid. This is a recognizable story that continues to pop up from California to Europe and places in between. Disassembling dispatchable fuel diversity and tearing down the resources you have before reliable, affordable alternatives are in place is an approach to the energy transition we must move beyond. 

Conor Bernstein is a spokesperson for the National Mining Association, the industry’s trade group based in Washington, D.C.