By Matt Murphy
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
HARTFORD, CONNECTICUT — Volatility of energy prices and concerns about capacity to meet the region’s energy demand brought leaders from all six New England states to Hartford on Thursday, where the early focus centered around access to natural gas and the ability to transmit renewable sources like wind and hydropower to consumers.
The infrastructure to bring natural gas into New England has failed to keep pace with the rise of gas-fired power plants in the region, according to the operator of the region’s energy grid.
Officials from several states also voiced concern over spikes in energy prices during the harsh winter when high demand for home heating power forced the purchase of coal and oil on the spot market.
“We recognize we need to have a diversified portfolio to make sure were not only addressing volatility and reliability, but that we’re doing our part to reduce our contribution to global warming,” Massachusetts Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Matthew Beaton said.
A forum on the region’s energy outlook set the stage for a private meeting between five of the region’s six governors, including two Republicans and three Democrats, who were hoping to firm up the contours of an agreement to work together to expand the region’s gas infrastructure, electricity transmission network and purchasing of renewable energy.
New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan could not attend the meeting due to a funeral, but sent two top energy officials in her place. The Granite State is partially home to proposals to extend transmission lines from Canada to bring hydropower to southern New England, as well as Kinder Morgan’s proposed new pipeline from New York.
Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy and Maine Gov. Paul LePage kicked off the energy summit, leading two panels on the region’s energy infrastructure challenges and efforts underway in states to develop potential solutions.
The forum drew a cross-section of lawmakers, energy lobbyists and power company officials representing a variety of industries, including gas, wind, solar and hydro.
“We’re either going to solve these problems together or suffer the consequences individually,” Malloy said.
LePage, the only other Republican governor in New England aside from Gov. Charlie Baker, said it was “high time” the governors get together to have a “fruitful discussion” about energy.
“We need to work on lowering the carbon footprint and lowering the cost for all of us,” he said.
Gordon van Welie, the president and CEO of ISO New England, the region’s grid operator, said that since 2000 the combined use of coal and oil has fallen from 40 percent of electricity generation to 6 percent as natural gas use has climbed from 15 percent to 44 percent.
Van Welie said natural gas infrastructure has not kept pace with the growth of gas-fired power generators, forcing the grid to turn to coal and oil-fired power plants to meet demand in periods of high-energy consumption.
Wholesale electricity prices this past February ranked as the third-highest monthly average in New England since 2003.
Future development of renewable sources of energy like wind and hydro will also require increased transmission capacity to bring the energy to consumers, according to ISO New England.
“If the New England states want to improve the deliverability of existing wind resources, develop new wind resources, or access more hydropower from eastern Canada, then they will need to invest in additional electric transmission to deliver that energy, which is largely sourced in the north, to where it is consumed, which for the most part is southern New England,” van Welie said.
Beaton said the Baker administration would begin working with the Legislature this year to seek the authority required to begin the planning and development for transmission lines that could bring Canadian hydropower from Quebec into Massachusetts.
Baker, who did not attend the morning forum, has remained agnostic on a variety of pipeline proposals, including the Kinder Morgan project that would extend the Tennessee Gas pipeline from New York through part of Massachusetts and Southern New Hampshire.
During his campaign, Baker opposed the Kinder Morgan pipeline, which drew strong local opposition in the towns that would host the pipeline, but softened his stance once a new route was proposed along existing utility corridors in New Hampshire.
The local opposition to Kinder Morgan served to highlight the challenges any of the six states will face when trying to site gas or transmission expansions within their borders.
The morning forum was briefly interrupted by protesters who said the governors were “courting climate catastrophe” by bypassing renewable energy sources in favor of natural gas. Baker, earlier this week, said he was interested in pursuing a “combo platter” to meet the state’s energy needs.
Another project – the 124-mile Constitution Pipeline – would connect natural gas from Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale fields to New England through a hub in Wright, New York. The project already has approval from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
“This abundant, affordable source of domestic natural gas will be online in 2016 and play a critical role in addressing the region’s energy plan going forward,” said Chris Stockton, a spokesman for the Constitution Pipeline developer Williams Partners.
Beaton said the Baker administration has not committed its support at this point to any of the handful of pipeline or transmission projects at various stages in the permitting process.
The Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities is expected soon to open an investigation, at the request of the Department of Energy Resources, into ways gas delivery capacity could be added to the New England market.
“Being the largest consumer of electricity in our region, we need to work closely with our partners and how we are fully committed to this,” Beaton said.
Patrick Woodcock, Maine’s director of the Office of Energy, described how high energy processes brought on, in part, by the lack of adequate access to affordable natural gas was hurting industry and jobs.
“We’re one regional energy market. We need to have one regional energy plan,” Woodcock said.