The latest development in the never ending debate on whether and how to increase natural gas capacity into New England is a low demand analysis from the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources (DOER).
This analysis was conducted at the direction of then-Governor Deval Patrick to determine whether new natural gas pipeline infrastructure is needed in the Commonwealth. The study, released December 23, utilizes current forecasts of natural gas and electric power under a range of scenarios, taking into consideration environmental, reliability and cost factors. It is similar to the NESCOE study conducted last spring, which included a low demand scenario and is, in fact, essentially a revisit of that low demand scenario.
Pipeline expansion supporters were skeptical that the DOER study would conclude that new capacity would be needed under the low demand scenario. The NESCOE low demand scenario had indicated no new need but, as subsequently pointed out by NESCOE, their analysis had not factored in the retirement of the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant and the Brayton Point units—a total retirement of more than 2,000 megawatts (MW) of electricity.
Rumor had it that the Patrick administration opposed pipeline expansion and would support it only if other New England states supported transmission projects for large scale renewables, particularly Canadian hydro. Once the large scale renewables legislation died in the Legislature last summer, many believed that the Administration’s announcement of the low demand study was to be a parting shot at supporters of pipeline expansion, finding that it is not needed.
The skeptics got a big surprise on the eve of the Patrick Administrations’ departure. A surprise in the conclusions of the study—that pipeline expansion is needed, to the tune of roughly 600,000 to 800,000 Bcf (billion cubic feet) per day and possibly up to 900,000 by 2030. To put that in context, it takes roughly 1,000,000,000 Bcf to power 6,000 MW of generation. The study concludes that the current shortage cannot be met by known measures in the short term, i.e. energy efficiency, demand response and the addition of some modest new natural gas pipeline projects already underway. This means the region will continue to rely on oil and infusions of liquefied natural gas to meet electricity demand during the winter months, and hence the current skyrocketing electricity and natural gas prices residents and businesses are facing will not come back down in the near term and the region will continue to rely on fossil fuels that produce even higher greenhouse gases than natural gas. Indeed, the financial incentives in the market today have driven several gas fired units to convert to dual fuel, i.e. oil.
So, if even a study from a somewhat unenthusiastic supporter of pipeline capacity indicates a need, can there be any doubt left that expansion is needed and it is needed immediately?
Action must be taken to ensure additional capacity in the region as soon as possible. The Baker Administration need not study the issue beyond becoming conversant in the studies that have already been done. The time has come to take steps to implement a strategy to make it happen. The place to start is with state regulated tariffs— for gas or electric distribution companies or both— to support the cost of facilities that meet the requirements of electric generation and end-use gas customers. It is the quickest and most logical course. This should be the Baker energy team’s top priority