In the wake of the Texas tragedy, when extreme cold weather literally froze the power grid, questions have been raised about whether it could happen here in New England. Although our regional grid is winterized to withstand New England weather, if conditions grow more severe, more often the ability to plan and operate a reliable power system will grow more difficult.

A view of ISO New England’s control room in Holyoke, Mass. The massive digital display is a real-time image of the region’s power grid. Courtesy of ISO New England

The region is dependent on imported energy and fuel supply chains that are sometimes compromised during severe cold. Dating to 2004, we have had near misses because of “energy adequacy,” which refers to the ability of power plants to have the energy sources they need to generate electricity during severe weather conditions.

As many may recall, the region experienced an extended cold snap in late December 2017 and early January 2018, when harbors and rivers froze, roads were treacherous, oil plants ran low on oil and gas pipelines were operating at their limits and couldn’t supply sufficient gas to all generators. If that cold front had stretched longer, there were real concerns about maintaining grid reliability.

Energy adequacy is a critical concern. Solar, wind, hydropower, natural gas, oil, coal, nuclear – regardless of type of resource – if a power plant doesn’t have access to the particular source of energy needed to produce electricity, it can’t operate. If this happens to too many resources at the same time, then the grid operator may have to step in to protect the system from collapsing. Grid operators have several tools available to maintain the delicate balance between supply and demand, and in certain circumstances, utilizing controlled outages may be necessary to protect against greater damage to the system.

The concern we face today is that these “once in a century” weather events are happening more frequently than every hundred years. Climate change is affecting weather patterns, which has put external pressure on the power grid. So, we may need to rethink our historical assumptions about energy adequacy to ensure system reliability under a new definition of extreme weather conditions.

As a region, we need to do more to address the vulnerabilities that such low-probability and high-impact weather events have exposed. Should extended periods of extreme cold hit, our power grid and fuel delivery systems will likely be stretched thin and vulnerable to unexpected outages. Because the ISO does not have operational or commercial authority over fuel delivery systems, the best tool we have available for addressing these risks is to create strong market rules for generators, including penalties and incentives to contract for adequate energy storage and fuel arrangements, and for consumers to reduce demand for electricity.

ISO New England, state officials, utilities, power plants and others in the energy industry have a responsibility to mitigate the region’s risks to wide-scale power outages – both in the near term and in the long term – as we move toward decarbonizing the grid and its economy. The New England states lead the nation in committing to a renewable power grid, while also setting goals to electrify the heating and transportation sectors. Current estimates indicate that power grid use could nearly double from this changeover. That means it is even more critical that the future grid withstand severe weather events.

ISO New England is partnering with the New England states and industry stakeholders to study what will be needed to make sure the future grid is both clean and reliable. Planning is now underway to examine potential power system needs in 2030, 2040 and 2050, based on timelines outlined by state goals, while ensuring our current system continues to be prepared for unpredictable weather.

The lessons from Texas are still unfolding, but it is clear that we must continue to work together as a region to strengthen our energy foundation, including robust wholesale markets, regulatory standards and energy supply infrastructure, to withstand the extremes of climate change. Our region is on the right path toward its clean-energy future, but as we move forward, we need to be ready for the next storm of the century.

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