A Boston-based environmental group says an unprecedented proposal for New Englanders to pay billions of dollars to expand natural gas pipelines might be avoided by beefing up power plants that use waste heat, importing more hydroelectricity from Canada and increasing energy efficiency.
Environment Northeast on Thursday released what it calls an alternatives assessment of a major policy effort announced in January by the six New England governors. Their plan would increase 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 through electricity rates. The costs soon would be recovered by savings on energy bills, advocates say.
But Environment Northeast says the governors’ plan focuses too much on pipeline expansion and ignores diversified, lower-impact solutions. The group’s assessment represents the latest push-back by environmentalists challenging what they see as the region’s over-reliance on natural gas.
Natural gas now fuels more than half of all power-generating plants. Cleaner than the oil and coal it typically replaces, gas still contributes to climate change and presents threats during drilling. Moreover, activists say New England’s dependence on gas postpones a transition to renewable energy and a power system in which aggressive conservation and efficiency measures reduce demand.
“We’re not saying we’ve figured out the total numbers,” said Peter Shattuck, director of market initiatives at Environment Northeast. “But this is the analysis the states should be doing, before they place multibillion bets on infrastructure.”
The goal of the governors’ pipeline expansion plan is to ease a bottleneck that’s keeping cheaper natural gas from reaching the region on cold winter days, when demand is high for heating and power generation. The shortage has created record-high gas prices here at times, which in turn has increased electric rates. Last winter, some paper mills briefly curtailed operations when power rates spiked.
A Maine study released in March found that if natural gas prices in New England were closer to what other parts of the Northeast are paying, electric customers could save $1.5 billion a year, with $120 million of that savings in Maine.
Patrick Woodcock, director of Gov. Paul LePage’s energy office, said the administration welcomed all suggestions to address New England’s “reliability, competitiveness and clean energy challenges.”
“We will be reviewing all comments and hope that we can use these suggestions to achieve cost-effective results for New England ratepayers,” Woodcock said.
Specifically, Shattuck’s group is proposing that the states look more closely at the potential for expanding combined heat and power plants. These units, often called co-generation plants, typically are in factories and large institutions, such as hospitals. They make electricity with natural gas and use waste heat to warm space or in a manufacturing process. Building more of them could cut demand on the power grid, along with gas needed by larger power plants.
The group also says more clean-energy imports from Canada are available than the governors’ proposal calls for, and they could replace natural gas generation in New England. It also sees potential in boosting energy efficiency and expanding state policies for buying renewable generation. It cites new technology for incorporating energy storage – ranging from grid-scale batteries to thermal units – that’s being used in states such as California to supply power at times of peak demand.
“This isn’t just a natural gas problem, it’s really an electricity problem,” Shattuck said. “The reliance on gas is for generating electricity. So you need to broaden the potential solutions to be considered.”
Meanwhile, the region’s electric grid operator has been asked to seek permission from federal utility regulators to charge electricity customers for gas pipeline expansion. The proposal also is being considered by the Maine Public Utilities Commission, which plans to vote in September.
A striking feature of the PUC case is the views expressed by one of the three commissioners, David Littell. In dissenting opinions, Littell noted that this was the first time any U.S. utility commission has considered using electric customer money to build new natural gas pipelines. He said the governors’ plan could add $1.5 billion to electric and gas rates in Maine, the largest single investment authorized by the PUC in a century. He urged a slower, more deliberate process, noting that ordinary PUC rate cases generally take nine months.
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