As Gov. Ned Lamont toured Waterford’s Millstone Power Station in April 2019, after resolving an impasse over the nuclear plant’s electricity rates, Rob Kaye was flipping the switch on a new solar array on the roof of his Nod Hill Brewery in Ridgefield.
Cut to this week during the noon hour on a sunny day: Those solar panels soaked up enough sun to cover 60 kilowatt hours of power used by the brewery. Across much of the rest of Connecticut, meanwhile, businesses and households consumed a couple million kilowatt hours of electricity generated by Millstone’s twin nuclear reactors.
That split sheds a bit of light on the gap the region faces in the eventual phase-out of Millstone, which at more than 2,100 megawatts of capacity is New England’s single largest source of electricity. That’s most likely more than a decade away, with its oldest reactor licensed through 2035 and the other one 10 years beyond.
But some nuclear plants have closed early – as Millstone’s operator Dominion Energy threatened to do so two years ago – and anyway, it will take years to replace that much output.
With that in mind, where is the state’s power mix heading and how fast will it get there? The debate matters now because Connecticut faces ongoing choices between allowing new, gas-powered plants and rapidly expanding solar, wind and other renewable sources to fill the future nuclear gap.
Lamont’s administration brokered new power purchase agreements for Dominion to continue supplying Connecticut’s two major utilities for the coming decade. The governor cited at the time the alternative scenario of rolling blackouts while replacement plants were rushed into construction.
More recently, this past week, he expressed hope that offshore wind power will eventually take up much of the slack.
All the while, solar has been making gains, but that’s a long, costly road to replace Millstone, whose twin reactors produce power equal to Connecticut’s four largest natural gas plants in Bridgeport, Middletown and Oxford, according to information on file with the Energy Information Administration.
Adding up gradually
Connecticut’s collection of rooftop and utility-scale solar arrays today amounts to about 230 megawatts of capacity – at summer’s peak in July – with nearly 300 more megawatts more to come by 2030, according to estimates by ISO New England, the Springfield, Mass. entity that oversees the region’s power grid.
Other sources are being added as well – notably natural gas plants, but also one or more wind farms eyed for off the New England coast that could add up to the power output of Millstone, in optimal conditions; and if cleared for construction, new power lines feeding a steady supply of electricity from hydroelectric dams in Canada.
Added together, an 800-megawatt wind farm planned south of Martha’s Vineyard coupled with Connecticut’s expected solar adds and a 650-megawatt natural gas plant would get the state within range of Millstone’s output. Yet more wind farms are under consideration as well as the Canadian hydro power lines with the possibility of an extra 1,200 megawatts for the larger New England grid.
Unpredictable weather patterns create “energy security” risks in the words of ISO New England for wind and solar power. That problem will persist until utility-scale batteries can store excess energy for use on calm or cloudy days, cost-effectively.
But the risk of an over-reliance on natural gas has been exposed as well the past several years, given the tendency of prices to spike during cold snaps as power plants compete with industry and household suppliers for purchases. And environmental groups cite the effects of fracking, a major source of natural gas.
“The increased renewables on the grid in New England are going to provide energy to Connecticut to displace the gas that’s currently being burned in Connecticut. And in the future…it could also be providing it to replace Millstone,” said Paul Peterson, a Vermont-based energy analyst long with Synapse Energy Economics. “It’s a question of all the resources on the grid.
Rays push renewables over top
In a momentous milestone between January and April that went largely unnoticed amid the pandemic, for the first time this year the United States generated more electricity from renewable sources than from the nation’s fleet of nuclear power plants, according to EIA estimates in June.
Connecticut generates less than 10 percent of its electricity from renewable sources. Through April this year, the state had seen a 26 percent boost in electricity from solar panels dotting the state’s properties since the start of 2019, according to EIA data, slightly ahead of a 21 percent gain in the U.S. as a whole.
Pushing renewables over the top nationally were the combined wattage of “small scale” photovoltaic installations like the Nod Hill Brewery system. Founding partner Rob Kaye estimates the brewery is saving close to $10,000 a year on its electricity bill, factoring in all capital and financing costs and offsetting subsidies to install the array.
Going solar has had an additional benefit – as a promotional draw in marketing the brewery he created three years ago with son Dave Kaye. Nod Hill drafts include a beer called Stellar Rays.
“Not only a socially conscious thing to do and a good PR thing as well… I thought it could save us money,” Rob Kaye said. “When you add all those three elements to it, for me I feel it’s been a home run.”
For now, installations like Nod Hill’s are small-ball in the early innings for renewable resources to replace the dominance of natural gas and nuclear. About half of New England’s electric load is generated by natural gas, with Millstone and Seabrook Station in New Hampshire kicking in about 30 percent of the region’s power on average from the process of nuclear fission.
Orange-based Avangrid has now taken up the challenge of importing hydro power generated by dams on the St. Lawrence River in Canada. Avangrid aims to stretch transmission lines along new towers on a 150-foot-wide corridor running 145 miles where its Central Maine Power subsidiary has existing lines.
Eversource Energy abandoned a similar effort last year after opposition from opponents of the route it planned to carve through the White Mountains in New Hampshire.
While utility-scale solar projects are subject to similar logjams – a major project in New Milford is stalled over a debate on managing water runoff as a result of clear-cutting trees – municipal building departments in Connecticut have been for the most part rubber-stamping the large majority of applications for rooftop installations on homes and businesses.
ISO New England expects that the states under its jurisdiction will contribute sufficient generation capacity to approximate their own consumption. As of this year, the agency lists 2,100 significant sources of electrical generation capacity in New England.
That includes 130 sources in Connecticut, ranging from Millstone’s twin reactors with combined “nameplate” capacity exceeding 2,100 megawatts; to a diesel generator in Norwalk that the Connecticut Municipal Electric Energy Cooperative uses to augment the city’s electricity supply.
“The region’s transmission system does allow for geographic diversity of resources – a retiring resource in Massachusetts could be replaced by a resource in Maine, for example,” ISO New England spokesperson Matt Kakley stated in an email response to a query. “This process is designed to ensure supply and demand are balanced in the region, and does not include some of the other factors that the states may weigh, such environmental or economic attributes of particular resources.”
Wind catches water in 2019
Wind turbines overtook hydro power last year in the United States as measured by electricity produced for consumption, EIA data shows. That was a significant milestone given the nation’s continued reliance on historic dam systems like the Tennessee Valley Authority; New York’s Robert Moses Niagara Power Plant which produces more power than Millstone; or Grand Coulee Dam in Washington that has triple that output as the nation’s largest hydroelectric installation.
Among the projects on the board, the Park City Wind farm would rise off the southern New England coast as a joint venture of Avangrid and Copenhagen Infrastructure Partners, with construction to be staged from Bridgeport and New London. And Eversource Energy is working with The Netherlands-based Orsted its own offshore wind farm proposals, while proposing on Friday an initial step toward accompanying battery storage for as much as 50 megawatts of power.
On a windy day, Park City Wind would have roughly equal the electric output of the CPV Towantic natural gas plant completed two years ago in Oxford, while eclipsing PSEG’s Bridgeport Harbor facility that cranked into gear last August powered by natural gas.
Avangrid has gone all-in on renewables, creating a separate subsidiary a dozen years ago based today in Portland, Oregon. Avangrid Renewables now operates the third largest fleet of wind farms in the nation. The Park City Wind project would add just over 800 megawatts to the New England grid, with the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management expected to issue a final decision in December on whether to approve the project.
“Our intent is to deliver the project as quickly as possible … and we know now that it cannot be earlier than 2023,” said Avangrid Renewables CEO Alejandro de Hoz, speaking in April on a conference call. “We’re going to do our best to do it as quickly as possible in that frame … It’s certainly too early, because of all the moving parts, to say exactly when it will be.”
Even as it pushes ahead with Vineyard Wind and other wind farms along the Atlantic shelf, Avangrid is now looking to hook up New England’s grid to hydro power generators in Quebec via its New England Clean Energy Connect proposal
Such additions continue to be offset partially by power plant retirements, however, whether to phase out plants with higher levels of pollution – PSEG’s coal-fired plant in Bridgeport is scheduled to go offline next year, with another large plant outside Boston slated for retirement in 2024 – or replace others that have older and inefficient turbine designs.
Just over a year ago, Entergy retired its Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station in Plymouth, Mass., leaving New England with two remaining nuclear plants in Millstone and Seabrook.
Next up in the Northeast is Indian Point Energy Center on the Hudson River about 30 miles west of Danbury, with operator Entergy retiring one reactor in April and the remaining unit scheduled to go offline nine months from now. ISO New York had replacement capacity lined up years ago and anticipates no impact on electricity supplies for the New York City and Hudson River valley regions.
‘A pretty significant cushion’
As Lamont took office in 2019, Dominion Energy was threatening to initiate the closure of Millstone, as continued decline in natural gas prices gave those plants a competitive pricing edge. Last September, the Connecticut Public Utilities Regulatory Authority approved commitments by Eversource and the United Illuminating utility operated by Avangrid to purchase electricity from Millstone for 10 years.
Connecticut ratepayers got a July preview of the increase, with the component of their bills containing the Millstone rate roughly doubling to 3 cents a kilowatt hour, amounting to about a $15-a-month increase for the household using 1,000 kilowatt hours of electricity in the summer months. Then on Friday, PURA suspended the rate hike.
A Dominion spokesperson described the company as “certainly interested” in reaching a new accord come 2029.
“There is a process to extend those licenses for another 20 years with the NRC that would have to be completed before they are extended,” Dominion’s Ken Holt said in an email. “We are committed to operating Millstone through to the end of the current power purchase agreements which expire in 2029.”
Natural gas prices have continued to drop precipitously, with the result of pushing some drillers and fracking companies into bankruptcy. Connecticut has a commitment from NTE Energy to build a 650-megawatt plant in Killingly, with a spokesperson indicating that the company is aiming for construction to begin later this year.
The price for solar panels and related systems, meanwhile, is down more than 70 percent the past five years according to Taylor Binnington, senior policy analyst in the Hartford office of the Acadia Center, an environmental group.
Binnington and Peterson collaborated on an Acadia Center report last month suggesting New England could cut its reliance on natural gas power plants to 10 percent of the region’s electricity consumption by 2030, with renewables filling in the gap – assuming no shortfall from an early retirement of Millstone.
In the cases of Indian Point and Pilgrim, the capacity was there, and Binnington and Peterson see the same trajectories in play for phasing out others with renewables.
“That’s a piece of the puzzle here – not every megawatt has to be replaced by another, equal megawatt,” Binnington said. “There’s a pretty significant cushion already built in.”
Includes prior reporting by Katrina Koerting and Luther Turmelle.
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