The challenge of renewable energy is that it is intermittent: the sun doesn’t shine at night, and the wind can die down at any time. The older plants that currently power the grid are not good at filling in these interruptions in power production because they take 12 to 36 hours to ramp up to full power. The proposed gas plant for Salem is a much better choice to be paired with large renewable projects because it offers super-efficient generation with the flexibility of being able to increase or decrease power generation in an hour’s time, without having to run any more than needed.
During this recent cold spell, our reliance on the dirtiest fossil fuels — coal and oil — for our region’s electricity has escalated dramatically. This situation underscores the need for gas as a transitional fuel until renewables can take up the slack. Otherwise, we are exposing ourselves not only to the unnecessary risks of rolling brownouts that ISO New England (the region’s non-profit electric grid manager) has so forcefully warned us about in their recent statements, but also a reliance on dirtier fuels that increase our greenhouse gas emissions.
Natural gas power generation is not a panacea, but rather a transitional step. It is a much cleaner-burning fuel and creates fewer carbon emissions than either coal or oil. For gas generation to be part of the solution, however, public policies must ensure that gas extraction and transmission meet the highest standards.
In the next 30 years, we must make major changes in how we generate, transmit and use electricity. Our policymakers here in Massachusetts and in Washington, D.C., need to make a far greater commitment to investing in renewable energy generation and in the national network of transmission infrastructure needed to deliver that power to every community in America. Once that infrastructure is in place, then natural gas generation can — and should — be phased out.