During the peak of the historic “bomb cyclone” winter storm on Jan. 4, the electricity network that serves Cape Cod and the Islands faced a significant test. The Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station in Plymouth went offline when a transmission line snapped in high winds and blizzard conditions, an event that forced curtailment of generation at NRG Energy’s Canal Generating Plant in Sandwich.
The two plants, which provide power to more than 180,000 homes in the region, didn’t come fully back online for 72 hours. Another outage could have triggered blackouts during three days of horrible conditions.
But what if Vineyard Wind had been built and online before to the storm? The offshore wind project’s 800 megawatts of clean energy not only would have eased the threat of an electricity grid crash, it would have dramatically reduced environmental impacts.
Environmental impacts? Indeed, frigid arctic temperatures and stormy conditions strained the capacity of interstate natural gas pipelines to transport enough fuel to meet the region’s demand for heating and electric generation. The frigid conditions led to an incredible spike in wholesale gas prices, more than 10 times the 2017 annual average price.
While most electricity in the region comes from burning natural gas in normal conditions, during extreme cold the gas is prioritized for home heating, and electricity generators turn to stored oil. Cold-weather conditions force electric generators to burn emission-intensive oil to fuel their turbines, releasing into the atmosphere tons of excess greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide, along with pollutants that affect local air quality. Commonwealth magazine reported that during 14 days of extreme cold after Christmas, New England’s power generators burned close to 2 million barrels of oil, more than they used in 2016 and 2017 combined.
Wind data provided by the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center’s offshore measurement station show that had Vineyard Wind been in service, it would have operated at full 800-megawatt power during the storm’s peak. In addition to more than making up for the outage at Pilgrim (which generates only 685 megawatts), Vineyard Wind would have reduced CO2 emissions by more than 67,000 metric tons during the “bomb cyclone,” based on figures reported by the regional grid operator, ISO New England. That level of greenhouse gases is roughly the same as the volume of tailpipe emissions produced by 14,000-plus cars over the course of a single year.
During the storm, power prices spiked to their highest level in years. Vineyard Wind’s 800 megawatts also would have mitigated this situation by providing enough clean, emission-free electricity over the four days during and after the storm to limit price spikes that occurred in the regional wholesale electricity market. Based on actual grid prices and weather conditions from early January, potential power production from a Vineyard Wind project would have saved Massachusetts customers nearly $15 million, along with another $31 million for customers in other New England states.
The recent extreme weather reminds us why the Cape and Islands region needs offshore wind energy sooner rather than later. More cold extremes will come in future winters. If Vineyard Wind is approved to start construction in 2019 as the first commercial large-scale offshore wind farm in the United States, it will deliver tremendous benefits to residents and businesses — including improved reliability, tremendous reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and stable wholesale electricity prices during the worst weather that winter has to offer.
— Mike Jacobs is chairman of the Vineyard Power Cooperative, a community-owned organization dedicated to a sustainable energy future for Martha's Vineyard. He leads the Union of Concerned Scientists Climate and Energy Program’s Electricity Markets and Regulatory division.