Wednesday, April 23, 2014
The six New England governors have set in motion a first-of-its-kind plan to increase the region’s natural-gas pipeline capacity by nearly 20 percent in three years and build at least one major electric transmission line to bring renewable energy from Canada.
Utility customers would be asked to help pay for the projects, which together could cost billions of dollars, through electricity rates. But the costs soon would be recovered by savings on energy bills as the projects increase supplies of lower-cost power, said Tom Welch, chairman of the Maine Public Utilities Commission and an architect of the plan.
The plan, made public Thursday, requests that the operator of the region’s electricity grid, ISO-New England, seek permission from federal regulators to charge electricity customers for gas pipeline expansion.
“It’s an unprecedented and remarkable approach,” Welch said. “But it reflects the fact that the price of natural gas drives the price of electricity in New England.”
Natural gas now fuels more than half of all power-generating plants. A shortage of gas in the region on very cold days last year sent wholesale electricity prices up 57 percent over the 2012 average.
The plan announced Thursday represents a compromise among diverse political interests, but it won’t satisfy everyone.
Maine manufacturers that use a lot of energy say it wouldn’t bring enough gas into the region to erase the wide price difference between New England and other regions. Environmental activists who support a greater shift to wind, hydro and solar energy say it would make New England even more reliant on natural gas.
The request to ISO-New England was sent by the New England States Committee on Electricity, an obscure but influential organization that represents the states in regional matters regarding electricity. Welch represents Maine on behalf of Gov. Paul LePage.
The request follows a letter of commitment signed last month by the six New England governors, in which they pledged to cooperate on energy infrastructure issues. The governors acknowledge that the region’s electric and natural gas systems have become increasingly interdependent and that further investments in both are needed to reduce energy costs and attract business.
Not articulated in the letter, but underlying the greater political cooperation, is a geographic frustration. To the north, Quebec, Newfoundland and Labrador hold vast hydroelectric resources. To the south lie economical deposits of shale gas.
“We are so close to two world-class resources, but unfortunately, New England ratepayers aren’t benefiting from that position,” said Patrick Woodcock, LePage’s energy director.
NEW POWER LINES, NEW PIPELINES
Through the new plan, the governors will seek proposals for transmission lines to carry 1,200 to 3,600 megawatts of electricity from “no and/or low carbon emission resources.” For practical purposes, that means as many as three separate lines hooked up to hydro or wind power plants capable of electrifying hundreds of thousands of homes.
No specific route is mentioned, and no date is set. Various transmission projects already have been proposed in the region, but none has gained traction. A 1,200-megawatt line connecting Hydro Quebec to utilities in southern New England, called Northern Pass, is stalled by opposition over the route through New Hampshire’s White Mountains.
Maine has an energy-corridor law that would place any new interstate transmission lines underground, along highways. One proposal, the Northeast Energy Link, would run along Interstate 95 and the Maine Turnpike.
The process set by the governors now could allow states to assess the projects together and determine how costs might be shared among ratepayers.
The governors also want ratepayers to fund the cost of new gas pipeline capacity, with gas delivered at prices that are on par with a low, national benchmark. Wholesale gas prices in New England now are about five times as much as those in some southern states.
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