Year after year, the operator of New England’s electric grid, ISO-New England (ISO-NE), announces a risk of blackouts during the winter. New Englanders are stuck in a Groundhog Day scenario, asking: if this threat to the region’s electric grid happens every year, why hasn’t it been fixed by now? At a recent webinar for the Acadia Center community, our staff took on these vital questions.

Melissa Birchard, Acadia Center’s Director of Clean Energy & Grid Transition, explained how ISO-New England operates the region’s power grid and electricity markets. ISO-NE, with the backing of the federal government, has the power to institute measures like rolling blackouts to keep the electricity system safe during the winter. Although rolling blackouts would only occur if winter weather were to be unusually severe and prolonged, state utilities have been asked to plan for this possibility.

The region’s overreliance on natural gas is the root cause of these problems. New England has increased its use of natural gas to generate electricity by a massive amount in the last 20 years. New England relies on natural gas for over 50% of its fuel mix each year, which is risky both because an overreliance on any one fuel creates a liability and because natural gas is not produced locally in New England and is, therefore, more difficult to have on hand and subject to price spikes. Because natural gas is a fossil fuel, it also contributes to extreme weather, perpetuating the risk of blackouts. Our targets for climate health all involve eliminating the use of fossil fuels like natural gas now and in the coming years.

In the winter, natural gas is in high demand not only in New England, but around the country and the globe. It’s this increased demand that threatens rolling blackouts and that causes consumer bills to rise, as gas supplies are preferentially delivered to utilities to provide heat, rather than merchant generators to keep the lights on. This winter has added challenges due to Russia’s war in Ukraine, restricting global imports from a major global supplier of natural gas. In addition, supply chain issues due to the pandemic and climate change are elevating risks. These factors have made prices skyrocket and the chance of blackouts rise.

Acadia Center’s answer to this problem, which we detailed in a recent explainer written with our partners, is clean energy. Clean energy provides solutions for near-, medium- and long-term problems.

These solutions include:

  • Resource Diversity – Stopping the overreliance on gas.
  • Demand Management – Managing consumer demand in smart and strategic ways. This can include using residential solar and batteries to support the electric grid, automatically adjusting lighting and device charging, or delaying energy intensive processes in industrial facilities to help lighten the load on the grid during key stretches of time.
  • Bringing online clean, renewable energy – Resources like offshore wind are strong in the winter and healthy for our planet.
  • Energy storage – Saving energy for the times of highest demand, in short, medium, and long duration.

To implement these solutions, we need to scale up clean energy and transmission lines for newly generated clean energy to travel across the region. We also need to get behind new technologies and modern energy markets. Many of these solutions need to be driven by the New England states and ISO-New England working together.

Amy Boyd, Vice President, Climate & Clean Energy Policy, detailed some solutions consumers can implement in the near term. The biggest thing consumers can do is make sure their homes are as energy efficient as possible and shop around to get off fossil fuels. Alternatives like community choice aggregation offer more options and often come in at a lower cost than traditional utility bills due to greater diversity and added renewable energy. Community solar can also be a great way to participate in clean energy located in your community, even if you can’t add solar panels to your own roof.

It’s important to remember that rising energy costs and the risk of blackouts can disproportionately affect renters, lower income people, non-English speakers, and environmental justice populations. These communities are most likely to live in homes that are not weatherized or connected to green energy, meaning they are on average 25% less efficient, cost five times more to heat, and create 50% of greenhouse gas emissions The winter energy problem is a threat to everyone but presents even more serious concerns for these communities, so we need green solutions to help these communities that need it most.

You can watch the webinar any time to hear more about this topic, find more  for consumers looking to lower energy bills, and hear Amy and Melissa answer questions from the audience. This webinar was made possible by the Acadia Center donor community, and we’re so grateful for the support. If you’d like to join Acadia Center in the fight for the clean energy system of the future, please donate here.