The latest data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration remind us that despite the relatively mild winter, Rhode Island households and businesses continue to pay up to 60 percent more than the national average for electricity and about 50 percent more for natural gas.
The state's manufacturers are hit even harder, paying more than double for both, putting them at a significant economic disadvantage.
A variety of alternate technology or project-focused studies continue to flow from advocates for natural gas pipelines, renewable energy resources, electric transmission lines and new power plants.
The abundance of such studies with competing views is confusing the decision-making and has further polarized energy-project supporters and opponents who, in most cases, have similar laudable goals – more affordable energy and a cleaner environment.
Not often mentioned is system reliability, which is likely to become a growing concern as ISO New England, the organization that oversees the region's interconnected bulk electric power system, warns about future power-plant shutdowns (such as the Pilgrim nuclear power plant) and integration of intermittent renewable resources, such as solar and wind, into the power system.
The cost and reliability of energy are major concerns throughout New England. Virtually every company and institution depends on reliable and affordable energy 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
ISO recently reported that by 2019, 4,200 megawatts of electricity generation will retire, with another 6,000 at risk of retirement by 2020. This represents nearly one-third of the region's electricity supply.
Renewables and energy efficiency, which the region is already pursuing aggressively, will help fill this gap. But they alone are not enough for businesses and institutions that depend on reliable power around the clock, at prices that are affordable, predictable and stable. New England will still need new natural gas-fired power plants, such as the one proposed in Burrillville, to make up for the impending supply deficit.
The problem is that the region's natural gas-pipeline system is maxed out. ISO recently noted that 4,200 megawatts of existing natural gas generation are at risk of not being able to get fuel during the winter, when natural gas electricity generation competes with space heating. Fortunately, this winter has been unseasonably warm, which masks the longer-range outlook.
A study conducted last year for the New England Coalition for Affordable Energy took an all-resource approach. It assumed aggressive energy efficiency and solar initiatives, and found that a combination of at least 500 megawatts of new transmission lines, 1,300 megawatts of on-shore wind, 1.7 bcf/day of new gas pipelines and some 900 megawatts of new natural gas-fired power plants built over the next few years could help the region avoid $5.4 billion in higher energy costs. Most of those costs would hit consumers in 2019 and 2020.
Many projects have been proposed and are under review that would meet, and even exceed, those levels. But all face strong opposition.
Rhode Island officials are working with officials in other states to address these issues. Governors have noted the need for new pipelines, transmission lines, wind projects and the pursuit of efficiency and solar. Ultimately, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission will determine if pipeline projects are in the public interest and meet safety and environmental requirements.
To avoid the consequences of inaction, the region needs to pursue an all-resource strategy. There is no single solution.
Over the next five years, New England needs new and expanded pipelines to bring lower-cost natural gas from the west, the construction of cost-effective wind projects, additional natural gas-fired power plants, and new transmission lines to bring hydropower and large amounts of wind energy from the north. This is on top of continuing the region's aggressive pursuit of energy efficiency and solar.
We need them all if the region's energy prices are to become more affordable and energy supplies more reliable. •
Gary Ezovski is a member of the Rhode Island Business Coalition and Carl Gustin is a consultant to the New England Coalition for Affordable Energy.