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Legislature to Vote on Electricity Bills with Far-reaching Implications
12/27/2013   Reported By: Mal Leary

Two decades ago, natural gas-fired generation represented about six percent of all the electricity produced in New England. In 2012 that had grown to 52 percent and the group that manages overall generation of power in the region, ISO New England, expects that number will continue to grow raising a number of questions for Maine policymakers.

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Policy decisions made today will affect both availability and the price of electricity years from now. Members of the Legislature’s Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee are considering several bills that could have an impact on both construction of power plants and the distribution system to get that power to where it can be used. ISO New England, which manages the dispatch of electric power throughout the region, recently completed a study of what will be needed in the 2020’s. Mike Giamo is with ISO New England. He said several plants will need to be replaced or rebuilt to use natural gas.

"They are all generally over 40 years old and they range from 40 into the 60’s and they include the Yarmouth plant here in Maine, Giamo said."

He said the study does not recommend what plants ought to be closed or retrofitted, but instead looks at the projected electricity needs into the next decade and finds the region will be short of generating capacity, about 5,000 megawatts short. With natural gas fired electric generation costing significantly less than coal or oil fired plants, lawmakers asked what ISO New England is doing to encourage new plants fired by gas. Giamo said the ISO’s role is limited.

"The ISO’s role right now is not to build capacity, but what we have been doing is working, improving our communications skills with the gas pipelines to get a better idea when there will be constraints on the system," said Giamo.

Lawmakers said they think more should be done to encourage the expansion of natural gas pipelines in the region. They point out that natural gas is increasing for both business and residential use. And they worry that existing pipelines may not be able to handle all of the increased demand. Members of the panel asked if ISO New England is taking any steps to make sure pipelines are expanded. Both Mike Giamo and Eric Wilkinson responded.

"The ISO and ISO’s management has been working with the various regulators and the governor’s office," Giamo said. "I think it would be premature to talk other than to said conversations are happening."

"I would just add that I think our major role would be to be as the entity that can provide data for that discussion," Wilkinson said.

Wilkinson went on to describe the increasing role of very small, sometimes individual home based electric generators, usually photo-voltaic arrays to convert sunlight to electricity. It’s called distributive generation.

"99.9% of the things that we focus on at the ISO deal with the transmission system, the bulk transmission system, the big power lines, the generators, this is different," Wilkinson said. "This is the little stuff that’s been traditionally at the margins but is now playing a larger role."

Wilkinson said the ISO study estimates as much as 2,000 megawatts of capacity will come from such small sources by 2121. To put that in perspective, the entire New England region is projected to generate about 30,000 megawatts by the 2020s. He said there are federal tax incentives in place to encourage development of small generating sources and they are expected to continue. He said what ISO New England will be asking Maine and other states to do is pass laws to allow for better integration of the small plants into the regional grid.


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