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Editorial: Winter weather puts strain on New England power infrastructure

Published: Monday, January 20, 2014

Updated: Monday, January 20, 2014 21:01

If this past winter break showed us anything, it’s that Connecticut weather, and New England weather in general, is erratic. In the winter it can get very cold at a moment’s notice. While the frigid temperatures lead New Englanders to a change in wardrobe, it can also have a much wider spread effect, particularly on energy consumption.

The Independent System Operator (ISO) that runs the New England power grid relies primarily on natural gas. According to the CT Mirror, in 2012 the ISO’s fuel mix consisted of roughly 52 percent natural gas. This isn’t surprising considering natural gas is a formidable energy source for generating electricity and heat. It also tends to be cheaper and cleaner than either coal or oil. However, this reliance on natural gas can lead to energy trouble in the winter months.

During the rest of the year, natural gas is used mainly for electricity, especially in the summer. However, when the temperature inevitably drops in the winter months, natural gas priority is given to heating homes. Leftover gas is then utilized for power plants, but given how cold it can get, the supply for electricity production is often limited. Part of the reason is that the infrastructure for natural gas is already at capacity, so the supply of natural gas can’t be increased. Combine this with the increased demand during the winter and you get a rise in the price of natural gas; so much so that there were multiple days over break when the price got so high that oil and coal were actually cheaper options for the ISO, according to the CT Mirror.

One potential solution to this energy problem is the new pipeline infrastructure from the Marcellus shale gas supply in Pennsylvania. This would create a larger supply of natural gas to meet the increased demand. Unfortunately, according to the Energy Information Administration arm of the U.S. Department of Energy, these pipelines would not reach New England until 2016.

As an interim solution until natural gas structure can be improved, it is important that New England manages and promotes energy conservation during the winter months. Some of the changes that could help or have already taken place include increasing reserve requirements and giving more time for fuel and delivery arrangements. From an individual consumer perspective, better insulation and other conservation strategies can create better efficiency and help reduce consumption.

It is crucial that New England continues with these policies for the weeks ahead and in future years to help alleviate the energy dilemma and minimize waste and price increases while larger scale changes, such as increasing natural gas capacity, are under way. 

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