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It's time for New England's electric grid operator to incorporate more clean energy

Nov 08, 2023Nov 08, 2023

Contrary to ISO's past predictions, we have not seen rolling blackouts resulting from a lack of fossil fuels. (Dana Wormald | New Hampshire Bulletin)

It's officially winter in New Hampshire. That means it's cold (at least somewhat cold, punctuated with severe cold). It means there's snow (at least in parts of the state, with our ski mountains not having an ideal year yet). And for the last 15-plus years it has meant that ISO New England – our region's electric grid operator – has predicted rolling blackouts and cold nights unless we invest in more fossil fuels.

But not this year. In its winter outlook released in December, ISO-New England stated that it does not anticipate rolling blackouts this winter.

Let's put this change in tune into perspective. ISO had been telling the same tired story about rolling blackouts for the past 17 years, and they used this threat not only to push for increased reliance on fossil fuels but to also create barriers to building more clean energy infrastructure. ISO also postponed by two years the removal of a rule that would allow renewables like wind and solar to compete fairly with fossil fuels in the New England energy markets.

As for why renewables aren't the solution to fixing our power grid, ISO claims it would simply take too long to build the projects in time to help avoid blackouts. The problem is they’ve been making claims like this for over a decade, a period in which ISO easily could have begun efforts to incorporate more clean energy onto the grid. Stopping the fear-mongering about rolling blackouts is a start, but it's not nearly enough.

There's a grim irony to this saga. Contrary to ISO's past predictions, we have not seen rolling blackouts resulting from a lack of fossil fuels. In fact, fossil fuels are actually causing us to have issues. Case in point: ISO recently revealed that the power plant outages that nearly caused blackouts on Christmas Eve all occurred at fossil fuel facilities.

At the same time, we are experiencing more power outages because of more frequent severe weather events and stronger winds, which are caused by climate change. The biggest driving force of climate change is fossil fuels, the very same fossil fuels ISO touts. Despite this connection (one we’ve known about for decades), ISO has only recently decided to shift its perspective.

In New Hampshire, we’re seeing the effects of climate change firsthand. More rain, less snow, and unbearably hot summers are becoming the norm – since 1901 temperatures across the state have risen by 3 degrees Fahrenheit on average. Winters in the Granite State are getting shorter, and this is having a huge impact on skiing and maple syrup harvesting, two vital pieces of our economy. And warming temperatures in the Gulf of Maine are depleting the populations of iconic New England species like cod and lobster. In a worst-case scenario, New Hampshire could see more than 50 days with temperatures above 90 degrees by the end of the century.

To combat climate change, we need to switch to clean, renewable energy, and that needs to happen now. The average New Englander may not have heard of ISO New England, but ISO's decisions affect our everyday lives. Funded by money coming straight from our pockets, operating mostly behind closed doors, and usually walking in lockstep with fossil fuel companies, ISO is the entity in charge of sourcing New Englanders’ electricity.

ISO's change in tune about rolling wintertime blackouts certainly represents a step forward from past years, but there's a lot more that needs to be done, which means the work of advocacy groups, policymakers, and concerned citizens isn't over. Together, we still need to push ISO to incorporate more clean energy into the grid before climate impacts get any worse.

by Tom Irwin, New Hampshire Bulletin February 9, 2023

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Tom Irwin is vice president and director of CLF New Hampshire. Having joined CLF in 1998, Tom has led a number of advocacy initiatives in New Hampshire over the years, including CLF's work to tackle the problem of childhood lead poisoning, as well as a number of water quality, smart growth, and transportation initiatives. In addition to practicing in these areas, he also has engaged in advocacy addressing projects of major concern to the state, such as the proposed Northern Pass electric transmission project.