TODAY’S STUDY: The Future Of New England’s Power
Power Switch; The Future of the Electric Power System in the Northeast and the Disruptive Power of Innovation
Michael Bradley and Christopher Van Atten, October 2016 (M.J. Bradley & Associates)
The electric power system in the Northeast region has changed significantly over the past decade and continues to evolve, although to the casual observer it might not appear that much has changed.1 This is partly by design. The electric system is able to accommodate changes in generating technologies and end uses, while still delivering the same reliable supply of energy to homes and businesses. However, look below the surface (or beyond the meter) and you will find that much has already changed and disruptive forces continue to reshape the system, creating challenges, but also exciting new opportunities for the region.
Driving these system changes are rapid advancements in technology, changes in fuel prices, aging infrastructure in need of replacement, and state and federal policy choices. Customers are also spurring this change as they embrace new innovative technologies, like electric vehicles, and pursue greater energy savings in their homes and offices. Technology is changing how consumers interact with the electric grid, how much electricity people draw from the grid and when they draw it. The future of the electric system will include more interconnected devices, more intermittent renewables, and a more distributed grid, but the full implications of these changes are far from clear. Just as Apple did not know the full suite of applications that would be available for the iPhone when it first hit the market, we do not know exactly what the electric system will look like in 20 years. What we do know for certain is that change is coming and the pace of innovation has only been accelerating.
Technology innovation has been a disruptive force in other sectors of the economy with widespread social and economic implications. Computers, telecommunications, even the taxi business, has been upended in recent years by technology and business model innovation. The breadth and the pace of change can often be hard to predict because we have preconceived notions of how these systems should work and recent historic experience can often cloud our expectations of the future. The electric sector is different in many respects from these other sectors of the economy and change in the sector has tended to be gradual, but Peter KellyDetwiler, an expert on the energy industry, makes the case that the world of electric energy is undergoing a profound change and the change is accelerating: “[t]hanks to breakthroughs in high performance computing and materials science, a whole generation of vastly improved or entirely new technologies is likely to be unleashed on us in the very near future. And that surge of innovation will not stop. It will, in fact, accelerate.”
The purpose of this report is to explore the major trends that are reshaping the electric power system in the Northeast and explore some of the implications of these changes. We focus on this region because the Northeast states have been at the vanguard of the changes that are transforming how electricity is produced and delivered in the U.S. The region has already experienced a major shift in the mix of resources used to produce electricity, with natural gas and renewables displacing older coal- and oil-fired power plants. The Northeast states are particularly well positioned to manage the ongoing changes with well-established energy and capacity markets, and flexible market-based regulatory programs that integrate well with the region’s power markets.
Utility restructuring and the establishment of competitive markets, provides the region with critical tools and a strong foundation to manage the on-going changes that are occurring within the sector. In the 1990s, virtually all of the Northeast states began the process of transitioning toward retail competition and industry restructuring, launching a new era of market and regulatory innovation. The region now has three well established electricity market operators—PJM, New York ISO (NYISO), and ISO New England (ISO NE)—with centralized reliability planning and coordination and market mechanisms that guide investment in the electric system.
RGGI is likely to play a central role in guiding the resource and investment decisions within the region. Many of the Northeast states have also embraced market-based environmental policies and carbon pricing. The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), which relies on a market-based trading system to reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from the electric sector, is a prime example of the innovative policies championed within the region. Originally launched as an effort to demonstrate environmental policy leadership and encourage similar state or federal actions, RGGI has become a fully functioning marketplace for CO2 emissions, putting the participating states well ahead of federal efforts to address carbon emissions. Since 2009, RGGI has set a gradually declining cap on CO2 emissions from fossil-fired power plants with a final reduction goal to be met in 2020 and a further phase of reductions under active consideration. Emissions from the electric sector have dropped sharply since RGGI went into effect in 2009 due to a combination of factors including the recession, complementary energy and environmental programs, and fuel switching in response to lower natural gas prices. RGGI has been a catalyst for several of the market trends discussed in this paper, including the expanded role of energy efficiency within the region. From 2009 to 2015, the RGGI states have reinvested nearly $2 billion in proceeds from the CO2-allowance auctions back into the economy in various ways, including primarily on energy efficiency measures and community-based renewable power projects.
Electricity has the potential to play a dramatically expanded role in the region’s overall energy mix in the coming decades in order to achieve deep reductions in carbon emissions. Looking to the future, many of the Northeast states have set ambitious goals for themselves. All of the New England states, New York, Maryland, and New Jersey have established economy-wide goals or requirements for reducing greenhouse gas emissions with most aiming to cut emissions 80 percent from 1990 levels by 2050. This implies a major transformation in the region’s energy system, including changes well beyond the electric system. RGGI will continue to be a central element of the region’s climate and energy strategy; however, new and expanded strategies will be required to achieve these deeper reduction targets. To date, shifting from coal and oil to natural gas has been the primary source of CO2 emissions reductions. However, this option has been largely exhausted in some states. Transportation is the leading source of CO2 emissions within the region. There are certainly more opportunities to reduce emissions within the electric system, but as the system continues to decarbonize, electricity will provide opportunities for achieving emissions reductions more broadly across the economy by switching from gasoline powered vehicles to electric vehicles, and by switching from oil and natural gas use in boilers and furnaces to heat pumps powered by electricity.
The region has already experienced several waves of innovation and change, and there are more to come. The question now is: how will the electric system evolve over the coming decades, while continuing to maintain reliability and reducing greenhouse gas emissions across the economy?
This report covered a fair amount of ground in discussing the electric market trends in the Northeast. However, it has really only scratched the surface in terms of addressing the full policy landscape, the innovative technologies that are continuing to emerge, and the challenges that lie ahead. However, we hope that this report will be a helpful introduction to these topics and motivate further exploration and dialogue. If the region transitions to rely more on electricity to power the region, the need for a reliable and cost-effective electric system will only further increase. The industry is at a crossroads, there will be significant changes between now and 2030, and it will be fascinating to engage and observe the changes to come.