Brian T. Watson
The Salem News
---- — Last week, I wrote about the controversy around the proposal to build a new power plant in Salem. I described the unique constraints of the waterfront site, the concerns of the city, and the pros and cons of a new gas plant. I also outlined the nature of the two lawsuits brought by the Conservation Law Foundation appealing the approvals received by Footprint Power (which would build the plant).
I described state Rep. John Keenan’s proposed legislative amendment that would essentially bypass CLF’s — and any other — present and future appeals and, thereby, allow Footprint to maintain its February construction commencement date. I explained that Keenan is relying on the judgment of the Independent System Operator (ISO), which has concluded that the new gas plant will be needed in 2016 to maintain the New England electrical grid’s capacity and reliability.
Finally, I stated my belief that, while a new power plant could facilitate a welcome cleanup and redevelopment of the entire 65-acre site, I don’t view the entire situation as an emergency that warrants eliminating the right of appeal.
But there is another subject that this debate touches, and that is the present composition of the regional electrical grid and the power-generating plants on it. By understanding some of the components and variables — capacities, fuels, loads, efficiencies, actual production — that characterize the delivery of electricity in New England, we can begin to assess how much progress we’re making toward the utilization of renewable energy, and we can start to consider what measures, if any, we’d support to accelerate that transition.
Currently, there are about 350 power generators on the New England grid. They are fueled by a wide variety of resources: oil, nuclear, natural gas, coal, wood, wind, solar, biomass, refuse and water (hydro). They range in size from massive nuclear plants to tiny solar arrays.
During the hot summer months, when electrical demand is at its highest, ISO — which coordinates the generators and operates the grid — constantly plans for the availability of roughly 32,000 megawatts of capacity. That quantity allows for a safety reserve since the actual peak demand is usually between 27,000 and 28,000 megawatts. During the fall, winter, and spring, demand is considerably less.
There are five nuclear plants on the system, and they consistently provide about 31 percent of our electricity. Nuclear plants cannot start or stop easily, so they run mostly constantly. Vermont Yankee may close next year.
There are 10 coal plants (some are dual fuel) on the grid. Since 2000, we have reduced our use of them. In that year, they provided 18 percent of our power; last year, they made just 3 percent of it. Brayton Point may soon close.
There are roughly 110 oil plants (varying sizes) in the grid. In 2000, they fueled 22 percent of our power; last year, they made just 1 percent of it. (There are also 45 dual-fuel oil plants.)
It is quite likely that coal and oil will continue to play a shrinking role in New England energy production. Our reliance on natural gas will continue to rise. There are about 45 gas plants on the grid, and they now fuel 52 percent of our power. That’s up from 15 percent in 2000.
Burning natural gas rather than coal and oil is an improvement. Gas emits half the carbon dioxide of coal, so it alters the chemistry of the atmosphere at a slower rate. But still, gas is a fossil fuel, and ultimately, its use must be severely curtailed.
The grid currently gets only 14 percent of its power from renewable energy: wind, solar, hydro, geothermal. And that percentage also includes energy from wood, biomass, landfills and refuse, so it’s less clean energy than is optimum.
While many fossil fuel plants will always be needed to backstop renewable energy, today we are not remotely relying on wind or solar in any meaningful way. How are we going to change that situation?
The answer could be multi-part. We’ve already established the CO2 emissions reductions goals for 2020 and 2050. But we obviously need more compelling market mechanisms to encourage the construction of wind and solar power generators. And we need to make it more costly to emit CO2. Otherwise, there is simply no way for wind and solar — which emit no CO2 — to compete against an economic and physical status quo whose most every detail and every expansion is organized around (and reinforces) fossil fuels.
We also need to implement greener design of our products, buildings, infrastructures, communities and practices. With an eye on materials use, consumption and efficiencies, we can reduce even further the demand side of electrical power.
A timely transition to renewable energy will require more citizen support, more political will, more initiatives, more market mechanisms and yes, more cost, than we are experiencing now.
As long as we are in a political and cultural environment that results in a nine-year process to produce a wind farm (Cape Wind) but proposes a fast-track schedule to build a fossil-fuel plant (Footprint’s), then we’ve still got a situation where the status quo tilts away from a renewable energy transition.
Brian T. Watson is a Salem News columnist. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.