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The Declining Role of Natural Gas Power in New England

By 2030, reliance on natural gas for electricity could decrease to only 10% of New England’s consumption

Existing gas-fired electricity plants would be underused and any new gas infrastructure would be unnecessary, according to new study from Acadia Center

A new report from Acadia Center entitled “The Declining Role of Natural Gas Power in New England” concludes that under current plans and laws, New England’s reliance on natural gas to fuel power plants could drop from 45% to approximately 10% of its electricity needs in 2030, making any investment in new gas pipelines or plants unnecessary and therefore costly.

The enormous shift away from natural gas would result from environmental policies in every New England state to promote renewables, as well as planned electricity imports from outside the region.

Connecticut has committed to reducing its 2050 greenhouse gas emissions by 80%, relative to 2001 levels, and Massachusetts has committed to reaching net-zero emissions by 2050. Similar targets have been established by other states throughout New England.

The impacts from the region’s reliance on natural gas are disproportionately felt by low-income households and communities of color. The report calls for action to redress this ongoing inequity at every level of decision-making.

“This report underscores that continuing to invest in new gas infrastructure throughout the upcoming decade adds unnecessary expense, leaving us with plants and pipelines that we won’t need but could be forced to pay for,” said Daniel Sosland, President of Acadia Center. “It doesn’t make sense to build new gas-fired plants that we can’t use if we’re going to have a hope of avoiding the worst outcomes of climate change.”

In the meantime, the cost of generating wind power has dropped 70% in recent years, and utility-scale solar costs have dropped even further — by 90%, according to sources cited in the report.

The Acadia Center report studied two scenarios through 2030 — continued expansion of natural gas supply and generation capacity versus no additional investment in gas infrastructure. Under either scenario, dependence on gas-fired electricity would drop from about 45% to 10% of New England’s electricity needs.

“If natural gas is only needed to a meet a tenth of New England’s needs, then planned gas plants, and possibly existing ones, are going to be severely underutilized, and that could present problems for their finances,” warned Taylor Binnington, Senior Policy Analyst at Acadia Center.

From now until 2030, the expansion of renewables without additional investment in natural gas would result in a cumulative cost savings of about $620 million, clearly challenging the assumption that natural gas is the least expensive option, according to the study.

Furthermore, more reliance on natural gas means more dollars flowing out of Connecticut, Massachusetts and other New England states. For example, the report points out that in 2017, spending on imported natural gas by the electric power sector amounted to $1.4 billion. Recapturing some of those dollars to invest within the region could result in a net job gain.

The Acadia Center study offers several additional recommended actions and implications, including:

1. Construction of new natural gas plants should be opposed under all circumstances, since additional fossil gas generating capacity is unnecessary. New fossil gas plants may be unable to sell their electricity, potentially leaving stranded costs for ratepayers to cover.

2. Natural gas delivered to power generators in New England through expanded or upgraded pipelines would not be used enough to justify their investment costs. States should strongly consider whether new gas projects should proceed if they are misaligned with public policy.

3. Renewable electricity will play a huge role in helping states meet their carbon reduction goals. If ISO-NE’s markets continue to work against public policy goals, states should follow Connecticut’s lead and hold the ISO accountable – or find ways to work around it.

The report concludes, “the future of fossil gas power in New England will be a challenging one. Many decisions influencing what the grid will look like in the next ten years have already been made, which makes the remaining decisions even more important.” The long-term impacts of climate change – on human and ecosystem health and on the economy – have a cost, too, and decision-makers should be aware that these costs and benefits can make an even clearer case against expanding fossil gas infrastructure.

The full report is available here: https://acadiacenter.org/document/the-declining-role-of-natural-gas-power-in-new-england/


Media Contacts

Amy McLean, Connecticut Director & Senior Policy Advocate
amclean@acadiacenter.org, 860-246-7121 x204

Nancy Benben, Director of Communications & External Engagement
nbenben@acadiacenter.org, 617-742-0054 x104

Climate Justice for Providence

Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza had powerful words about the role equity must play in climate work when the city released its Climate Justice Plan in late October.

“Despite being one of the three pillars of sustainability, equity is often an afterthought when it comes to climate action planning,” Elorza wrote in the plan’s introduction. “In creating this plan, we chose to lead with equity and partnered with those who are most impacted by the climate crisis and other environmental injustices.”

Acadia Center is proud to have supported Providence and its Racial and Environmental Justice Committee (REJC) in developing a plan that charts an equitable, low-carbon, climate-resilient future for residents.

Overall, the Climate Justice Plan is built around carbon-reduction targets in two key sectors – buildings and transportation – and a complete transition to carbon-free electricity sources like solar and wind. Acadia Center developed those targets in a two-step process. First, analysts in our CLEAN Center projected the city’s emissions out to 2050 assuming no new climate action and taking into account existing technologies and trends. Next, Acadia Center built another scenario to put Providence on track for at least an 80% greenhouse gas emissions reduction — and carbon neutrality — by 2050. Figure 1 below shows the emissions reduction trajectory by sector.

Figure 1

In addition to recommending targets, Acadia Center supported the REJC’s development of approaches to achieve deep reductions in carbon emissions and local air pollution to improve community health. The policies listed below are among those that will help Providence reach the necessary emission reductions.

Buildings:

2050 Target2035 Interim TargetPolicy Examples
90% of residential heating and 85% of commercial heating converted to high-efficiency electric heat pumps48% residential and 45% commercial heating converted to heat pumps
• Increasing energy efficiency program participation and total energy savings for low-income residents
• Passing a Building Energy Reporting Ordinance requiring large building owners to report energy use and emissions to the city
• Launching a formal stakeholder process to explore mandatory emissions reductions for large buildings

Transportation:

2050 Target2035 Interim TargetPolicy Examples
20% reduction in Vehicle Miles Traveled in Providence; 80% of VMTs in Providence electrified 11% reduction in VMTs in Providence; 43% of VMTs electrified

• Investing in cleaner, more accessible public transit through electrification of RIPTA, prioritizing routes in communities of color
• Converting 100% of the city’s vehicle and school bus fleets to renewable vehicles

 

Clean Energy:

2050 Target2035 Interim TargetPolicy Examples
100% of electricity is carbon-free 50% of electricity is carbon-free• Implementing a community choice aggregation
program that prioritizes local renewable energy
sources and includes principles of energy democracy
• Increasing access to renewable energy for
frontline communities via community solar
• Exploring the use of municipal buildings to
support a community solar project for low-income
residents and renters

Figure 2 below shows that the three sectors contributing the most to the city’s overall GHG emissions reductions in 2050 are clean electricity (44%), fuel switching to heat pumps (25%), and penetration of electric vehicles (22%). Eliminating energy waste through energy efficiency and reducing reliance on vehicles are also contributors.

Figure 2

Much hard work remains to put the plan into action. In addition to carbon reduction strategies, it calls for systems-level changes in the city’s governance structure and economic system and assurance that frontline communities will not be displaced as Providence becomes climate-ready.

Pol Tavarez, a member of the REJC, told The Providence Journal, “I have faith that this report is really the first step in community members coming together to recognize their influence and their power to reach these objectives.”

 

Visit Providence’s Climate Justice Plan home page for more resources including a Spanish translation and audio “future stories.” Complete information on Acadia Center’s modeling approach is found in the Technical Appendix.

 

by Erika Niedowski