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New power plants needed to offset closings; ISO New England sees no growth in electricity needs

The regional power grid operator predicted on Thursday that electricity usage across New England will grow little over the next 10 years because of energy efficiency efforts but new power plants are still needed to replace facilities that are scheduled to shut down.

ISO New England said more than 4,600 megawatts of generating capacity will retire over the next three years, including the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant and the Brayton Point coal plant in Somerset. Grid officials said new power sources, mostly natural gas and wind plants, are being proposed to offset those retirements.

Gordon van Welie, president and CEO of ISO New England, said in a press release that the grid will fall short of its “resource target” for 2017 and needs to take steps to address the shortfall.

“The lack of pipeline infrastructure has raised fuel adequacy for natural gas generators to the top of the list of pressing concerns for New England’s power system,” van Welie said. He called for an investment in fuel infrastructure investments, including an expansion of natural gas pipeline capacity, purchases of more liquefied natural gas, and greater oil storage at gas plants to enable fuel switching when gas supplies are tight.

The lack of natural gas pipeline capacity in New England becomes a big problem in the winter when demand is strong. Electric utilities, who purchase power on behalf of many of their customers, are predicting prices will soar this winter by 37 percent compared to last winter.

The six New England governors had been working on plans to import more hydroelectricity from Canada and expand natural gas pipeline capacity into the region, but those talks broke down when the Patrick administration in Massachusetts decided more study was needed before moving to expand gas pipeline capacity coming into the region. A study on the state and the region’s power needs is expected to be completed sometime in December.

Environmentalists across the region have been saying greater energy efficiency efforts and the development of solar and other forms of renewable power would make an expansion of natural gas pipeline capacity unnecessary.

But the report from ISO New England sounded skeptical on that front. The report said demand for electricity will essentially be flat for the coming decade because of energy efficiency efforts, although summer peak demand will increase .7 percent annually. Even with that flat growth in electricity usage, the grid operator said the region needs new power sources to offset plants that are shutting down.

The power grid operator’s report forecasted that solar nameplate capacity across the region will grow from approximately 500 megawatts at the end of 2013 to 1,800 megawatts by 2023. Nameplate capacity means power generation at maximum capacity, which is rarely reached with solar facilities. Gov. Patrick has called for Massachusetts to increase its solar energy production to 1,600 megawatts by 2020, but a spokesman for ISO New England said the megawatt comparisons used by her agency and by Gov. Patrick are not comparable.