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Regional Power Manager Warns Of Future Grid Vulnerabilities In New England

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As natural gas gets diverted for home and other heating this winter, the head of New England's electricity grid is warning about possible future risks to the region's power.

Homes and businesses that heat with natural gas draw more fuel in the winter. While that gas keeps those customers warm, it means the fuel isn't always making its way to natural-gas fired power plants, which use it to make electricity.

"We're facing the reality that it's very difficult to build new gas pipelines into New England," said Gordon van Welie, president and CEO of ISO New England, the independent, not-for-profit administrator of power in the region. "There is a point at which we will not be able to ensure reliability if we continue retiring non-gas resources."

Speaking on a conference call with reporters, van Welie said there are now more gas-fired power plants in the region, but during winter peak demand, the region's infrastructure can't always get fuel to them quickly enough.

That means system operators have to rely on older oil, coal, and nuclear plants to provide energy, but the problem is those are closing.

"In just the last three years, more than 4,000 megawatts of coal, oil, and nuclear generators have retired or announced the will retire by 2019," he said.

That list includes Brayton Point, a coal-fired plant in Massachusetts, and Pilgrim, the state's only remaining nuclear plant.

Meanwhile, the only remaining nuclear provider in Connecticut -- Watertown's Millstone Power Station -- is reporting issues competing against cheaper-priced natural gas.

Eventually, van Welie said, renewable resources like wind and solar may be the solution to New England's array of power issues, but in the meantime, during an extreme weather event, he said he can't rule out the possibility of voluntary power restrictions, or in extreme cases, rolling blackouts.

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Patrick Skahill is a reporter at WNPR. He covers science and the environment. Prior to becoming a reporter, he was the founding producer of WNPR's The Colin McEnroe Show, which began in 2009. Patrick's reporting has appeared on NPR's Morning Edition, Here & Now, and All Things Considered. He has also reported for the Marketplace Morning Report. He can be reached by phone at 860-275-7297 or by email:
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