The cold is setting in and the snow is starting to pick up in New England, which means furnaces are working overtime. New England has historically been a region with a progressive stance on emissions and hydrocarbon infrastructure. New England states were among the founding members of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) cap and trade program and numerous proposed natural gas pipelines have been attempted and failed to enter the New England market over the last decade. That progressive stance has pushed many renewables projects forward however leaves the region still beholden to legacy power infrastructure, including one of the US’ largest fleets of power plants that burn oil to generate electricity. Of late, this fleet has been thrown into service pushing emissions in the region to recent highs.
The winter 2021/2022 started off mild and dry, with most of the US celebrating the December holidays in shorts. That couldn’t last forever though and now temperatures have taken a turn down. Much of the East Coast has felt this shift in the last couple weeks, with heating degree days on the rise, as shown below from FactSet’s Workstation.
As temperatures have fallen, New Englanders have turned to their thermostats and started to burn natural gas to stay warm, which is typical for the season. However, in recent years New Englanders have increasingly turned to natural gas to power their homes as well. ISO New England, the regional grid operator, has added 3 GW of natural gas fired power plants in the past five years, pushing its fleet from 17 GW to 20 GW.
This means that as temperatures dip, residents look towards natural gas for both heat and electricity. Usually, this increased demand would be met with increased supply, however the region has been opposed to any new natural gas infrastructure. With supply into the region stagnant and demand on the rise, the region must turn towards substitutes. In this case, the next best thing in New England to power homes is fuel oil.
The graphic below shows the daily generation mix (i.e. what fuels are used to generate electricity) over the last year in New England. As recent temperatures have fallen, oil and coal have turned on to meet what natural gas cannot. This shortfall is exacerbated by the retirement of 1.2 GW of nuclear power plants over the last five years in New England.
Of course, with any hydrocarbon generation comes emissions and the recent uptick in oil and coal generation is no exception. The graphic below shows the uptick in emissions we have seen in the last couple of weeks. Compared to the previous month, power sector emissions are up 35%, hitting 87 thousand Metric tons of CO2 emitted on January 12th.
However, even with those much more carbon intense generations from oil, power sector emissions are not hitting highs we have seen during the summer. That’s because natural gas and its associated emissions have been diverted out of the Power sector and into the Residential and Commercial heating market. The following graphic shows emissions from other natural gas end uses as well as emissions from coal and oil used in the power market. Taking that into account, we can see that on January 10th the region hitting recent highs in emissions with modeled emissions from the Power and Natural Gas markets reaching 249 thousand Metric Tons of CO2.
While oil and coal will continue to play a role in New England’s power market during extreme weather, that role will diminish with time. In the coming years, a portion of the proposed 7 GW of offshore wind, 2 GW of solar, and 1.5 GW of energy storage will enter the market, providing additional generation to backfill gas generation when New Englanders turn up their thermostats. However, this does illustrate the unintended consequences that can occur when a series of seemingly un-related, well intentioned policies are adopted.