Massachusetts opted last week for one large power line to cover a big chunk of its energy needs for the next 20-plus years.
The Northern Pass proposal beat out other big transmission projects and dozens of smaller options for the right to supply all renewable power the Commonwealth wants.
As NHPR's Annie Ropeik reports, this has analysts and developers wondering what role smaller projects will play in the future of the grid.
Kevin Foley steps carefully across an icy dirt road in Claremont, N.H. He's at the edge of a snowy field surrounded by forest. On all this, he’s picturing solar panels.
"We’re only looking at this little piece, that’s this field," he says. "The 240 acres is all around us."
Foley works for SunEast Development, which wants to turn this parcel into a utility-scale solar array – 20 megawatts, connected to a substation about a mile away.
“There’s a power line not too far from us, right across those trees,” he says.
SunEast is moving forward on this proposal, and nine others just like it in New England – despite being shut out of Massachusetts’ efforts to procure a huge amount of renewable power.
The Commonwealth picked one big project instead. Eversource’s proposed Northern Pass transmission line would carry 60 times the energy of a single SunEast solar project.
The plan also impacts about 200 miles of land, instead of about 200 acres.
SIZE AND STABILITY
Analyst Gary Cunningham of Tradition Energy says smaller-scale solar and wind farms do help with one thing – peak demand. That’s those days when the grid is overworked and needs a little extra power. But they’re not as consistent as a big, hydro-fueled power line like Northern Pass.
“Solar isn’t going to be there at night, and wind may not be there if the wind isn’t blowing, so you need something that’s a little bit more stable,” Cunningham says.
That’s what he thinks Massachusetts wanted in its latest energy procurement. If Northern Pass gets online by the end of 2020 – and opponents are skeptical about that – Cunningham says it’ll offset the impact of upcoming plant closures, like Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station in 2019.
He’s not sure a bunch of smaller projects could achieve the same thing. But he says there are trade-offs to betting on a single project instead.
“Because of this long-term stability, you kind of skew the market,” he says. “That’s our concern with what’s going on right now.”
He says Massachusetts is basically pre-setting the price and proportion of Canadian hydro in its fuel mix for the next 20 years. That could undercut other resources – say, Seabrook Station Nuclear Power Plant in New Hampshire or a new, utility-scale solar development.
“And so the long-term effect is those generators don’t run as often, don’t make as much money and maybe they close,” Cunningham says. “So you’re not helping long-term stability on the grid by having these kinds of projects – you’re actually hurting it.”
That could mean higher prices for consumers in the long run.
SHIFT IN POLICY
Jim Bride of Energy Tariff Experts in Boston says that’s partly why New England states wanted their utilities to split from their power plants in the first place – so they wouldn’t skew the market.
He says Massachusetts’ investment in one big transmission line represents a shift in policy – “to move away from this laissez-faire sort of market-based system,” he says, “and to have a really interventionist policy where the state will be, in essence, determining what types of resources that we have in the system and how we procure them."
Advocates for renewables say the old system let the market show what it does and doesn’t want – like coal. Massachusetts’ more recent efforts are geared toward renewables, too – but Bride says he’s not sure landing on one big power line is the right way to cut emissions.
He says in recent years, the market and other states have opted for more, smaller generators close to their consumers… and that helps mitigate risk.
“If you pick a lot of small projects and some of them don’t make it, that’s much less problematic than one large project that runs into terrible difficulties and cost over-runs,” Bride says.
Northern Pass has already faced some of those. It’s drawn huge opposition in New Hampshire and gone through years of redesigns. No matter the outcome of its permitting process, which begins Tuesday and ends in late February, a long appeal is likely.
So it’s possible Massachusetts will wind up revisiting other bids.
(Click here to explore public details of bids that lost to Northern Pass in Massachusetts' clean energy procurement.)
For now, they’ve snubbed developers of smaller projects – like SunEast, with the solar array in Claremont.
Still, engineer Kevin Foley says he isn’t worried. The Massachusetts bid was a gamble, and they weren’t banking on it.
Once their arrays are ready to go, Foley says, being close to substations will let them market their power to all kinds of customers across the region.
“There’s a big demand in New England for renewable energy and we’ll continue to look for another buyer there,” he says.
His company also expects to bid on more state procurements in the future, as old power plants keep retiring and carbon-cutting goals get more ambitious.