The shale-gas bonanza on New England’s western doorstep has dramatically reduced the price of energy, but hasn’t ended fuel-supply constraints for the region’s electricity generators.
When a blizzard struck New England last month, residents faced widespread power outages and ISO New England Inc., the company that operates the regional power grid, faced a challenging period keeping electricity flowing smoothly.
As transmission lines went out of service and some power plants, including a nuclear station, dropped off the grid, ISO New England operators scrambled to find additional power from other plants.
Because of its declining price, natural gas has become the fuel of choice for power producers. ISO New England contacted gas plants with untapped generation capacity to see if they could pick up the slack.
But even though natural gas continues to pour out of the Marcellus Shale formations in New York and Pennsylvania, finding some for New England power plants proved difficult.
“The middle of the night on a Friday and they were having trouble contacting traders to get gas,” said ISO New England spokeswoman Marcia Blomberg. “It was a delicate situation. I can’t quantify how close we came to a disruption – we were able to manage. We didn’t have to enact any emergency procedures, but we did need some natural gas generators to come online.”
When needed, those emergency measures can include buying emergency power from Canada, asking large, commercial energy users to reduce consumption, and asking general customers to reduce consumption. All of those things are meant to avoid the unpalatable possibility of rolling blackouts.
The region’s increasing reliance on natural gas, which now accounts for 52 percent of the region’s electrical generation, has been ISO New England’s top concern for at least two years.
Providing a steady supply of electricity for the nation is a complex process involving cooperation between electricity generators, power grids, utilities, fuel distributors and global energy markets.