New England Black Out/Brown Outs this winter?

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peakbagger

Minister of Fire
Jul 11, 2008
7,693
Northern NH
Lots of articles and headlines in the news in the last few days about the possibility of region wide black outs and brown outs this winter (and upcoming winters). This made the regional news recently, but the regional grid operator has been predicting it for several years. Faulty comparisons are being made to the Texas issue and California Issue last winter. IMO there are major differences. The New England grid has been playing Jenga for several years where large base load non natural gas plants like Nukes and Coal have been shutting down and if they are partially replaced, they are being replaced with natural gas generation. Unfortunately the New England gas supply has been constrained due to inadequate supply and political reasons. When it gets really cold, the gas grid has to decide whether to send gas to homes and business for heating or send it to gas plants for generating power.

Here is some reading https://www.nhpr.org/nh-news/2021-12-08/electricity-grid-risk-iso-new-england-nh

The quick summary is as long as we have warm winter in the region and the large baseload natural gas plants can run, not an issue. If on the other hand it is a long cold winter, the grid will be short at times and ISO NE will have to start executing load planning actions that starts out with voluntary load reductions but could ramp up to rotating brown outs and eventually black outs. Loose Seabrook nuclear power plant during those periods and its near guarantee there will need to be load reduction events.

LNG was being used to add gas to the gas supply grid and it used to be readily available. It is a worldwide commodity and China, Europe and Japan are all desperate for it, It is likely it will not factor in to reinforce the gas supply. There is no quick fix, the grid either needs to get a bunch of transmission lines to Hydro Quebec or new non natural gas generation needs to be added. Renewables really do not factor in on this as they are not reliable enough for worst case planning. Add in storage like Hydro Quebec and it then becomes more of a factor. Note Europe is doing this with pumped hydro in Norway Finland and Scotland. They have the transmission lines that New England does not. Note these is some extra gas available through the PNGTS natural gas pipeline from Quebec but no one wants to pay for the upgrade.

Brown outs are not optional, if the load does not drop, it can turn into a blackout. Brown outs can damage marginal equipment, when the voltage goes down the amperage goes up.
 

Max W

Member
Feb 4, 2021
142
Maine
I guess we are hoping for a mild winter here in New England. A potential natural gas shortage and the affect on the electrical grid is not a pleasant prospect. Started reading about brown outs. Seems they can be more damaging than blackouts to electrical and electronic equipment with fluctuations and then surges when the power comes back up. So many devices are electronically regulated. We once had a 1942 refrigerator in the 70’s where the plate listed the voltage as low as 105 volts. This was good since that’s the voltage we had when we ran power in on own steel wire through the woods. Probably couldn’t kill that thing. Don’t know what electronics are in our one year old frig and if things like an electronically controlled hot water heat pump could be an any kind of risk.
 
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peakbagger

Minister of Fire
Jul 11, 2008
7,693
Northern NH
Modern switching power supplies can have high tolerance for voltage issues. Is the older ones with transformers that can take it hard. Any load that is across the line can suffer unless the load on it can be reduced to keep the amperage within acceptable ratings. Variable Speed drives are effectively switching power supplies so as long as they are set up current limited there should not be problem.

Natural Gas is great stuff except when there is a shortage of it. New England really doesnt have any large storage capability as its sitting on rock. There are plenty of firms that want to build pipelines but they want someone else to guarantee long term profit. No one wants to make that guarantee. Most of the New England states were talking about getting together to make that guarantee but once the price tag came out it didnt happen. the PNGTS line that runs from Quebec through Northern NH down to southern Maine could have its capacity increased substantially by putting in booster capacity along the line. Currently it is boosted up to high pressure at the border and then it flows to its tie in point in southern Maine with no boosting. The owners have gone out once possible more often to add compressor stations to increase capacity but no interest as anyone buying the extra capacity would be stuck paying whether they used it or not. There was a bet 20 years ago that Sable Island off Nova Scotia would yiedl a lot of natural gas but the field never produced any volume. If it had produced, it would backfeed the New England natural gas system.
 

NorMi

Member
Nov 18, 2021
111
Northern LP, MI
Like the article said, partly infrastructure and partly supply constraint issues. Trying to summarize or distill a snapshot cause and effect for a regional phenomenon in a global story is "pin the tail on the donkey" tough. This is such a long and winding road that has held my interests for many years now, and there are so many moving pieces. This website and the main topic interest me in no small part because it is a hyper focused part of this big story, the underpinning of our societies and the entire way of modern life - the short term anomaly of super abundant energy. It's easy to bring politics into it but I am quite glad that's functionally banned here, because it has almost nothing to do with it and it's just a sideshow distraction when the main event is already so horrifically, magnificently, interesting.

Fossil Fuels are between a rock and a hard place globally. Peak oil, long derided by economists with oversized rose colored glasses actually started going mainstream last year, with most major forecasters pinning the peak either already happened in 2019 or will happen in 7-19 years. A year ago, Bloomberg ran a nice piece on it: https://www.bloomberg.com/graphics/2020-peak-oil-era-is-suddenly-upon-us/ The overarching theme there is a demand-driven peak, in large part due to the largest economies and automotive markets no longer having as much interest, the largest single market in that sector being China. That is predictable, but it has had an unfortunate knock on effect. Oil companies know that both their product pricing and supply is becoming less stable and less predictable as they scramble for the remaining hardest to reach reserves. They know the business globally is becoming more risky as fewer projects pan out, come in on budget, and likewise attract investors as the projects are no longer such a sure thing as in days long since past.

It's not just the money, either. The tighter oil deposits get, the more energy they spend to get it too. So the monetary investment returns are decreasing, but so are the energy returns - that's why a barrel of oil is not a barrel of oil ( or natural gas, propane, etc). We used to get a barrel for the energy cost of extraction less than 1/1000th of a barrel, >1000:1 returns - talk about a good portfolio! Now we are under 20:1, in some cases under 5:1. We used to get 41.95 gallons of usable oil for every 42 gallon "oil barrel" - now we functionally get less than 39.9 gallons in the same barrel, down to less than 33.6 gallons in each barrel on the low end.

So wait, if this is a "demand driven" peak, why are we getting into a supply crunch!? Seems backwards, eh? It's not. Demand is peaking because the product is getting worse. You used to be buying a Toyota with a consistent quality and a killer warranty and now you're buying a Lada that might not come with a working engine half the time. 2016 oil crashed to sub $30. Not a big story of doom at the time, but an important shift in mentality. You can't pay the bills on tight oil and deep sea arctic if the bottom can fall out so starkly and quickly on your profits. So they see a demand decline, increasing volatility, increasing demand decline, rinse and repeat. in short, they are in a risky business that is getting much riskier. So this leads business leaders to get conservative to lay off risk. New field exploration has dropped more than 70%, and the findings that come back are getting worse, so they explore less because it gets more expensive. We got better at fracking cheaply, did that drive more investment in fracking and refracking globally? no. US Reinvestments are down, and down big. It's not a really US thing - Underinvestment is global too. No one sensible wants to foot the bill for tanks and pipelines either when you can't guarantee stuff is available when you need it, and for the price you can afford, to fill 'er up.

All this happens in the background while people keep getting hit with "gas is expensive" propaganda trying to politicize a catabolic process. Most don't know oil has crashed down to through $80/bbl and even tipped under $70 recently. Doesn't mean anyone can get as much as they want of it, though. Without tanks in the right spots to put it in, it's water water everywhere, not a drop to drink. Meanwhile LNG is at a different place in its pricing cycle, with ocean tanker rates at all time highs. We can see the forest for the trees on the long horizon thanks to work that goes back to Hubbert, but that forecasting power also changes the future, which impacts the forecast, disrupts markets in unpredictable ways, etc. The scaffolding on the downhill side of the roller coaster ride is more like a set of broken, shaky stilts than the sturdy ironwork we had on the uphill side.

A few people who aren't in the energy sector would love to blame it on greenies, but no one serious on energy analysis is on that train. Oil majors like Shell and Saudi Arabia are moving into renewables and "green" energy not by some altruistic change of heart, or save the planet mentality, or just for the PR, but simply because if they don't their main product is too unreliable to keep them out of bankruptcies and worse. They need more stable revenue streams, and the world needs the energy. COP 26 should have been the wake up call for the last few people who thought environmental concerns were driving anything - most of the people in the room at this "environmental summit" that weren't government reps were big oil. This is no more than a strategic energy transition for national and global security purposes, and it's uncomfortable for everyone in the room because they are threading a needle. The green window dressing is supposed to be good PR and something else to talk about to prevent panic contagion, imo. (I only put this paragraph in because it's fairly important if you want to do any energy analysis - EV, solar, wind, hydrogen, biomass are not being added in primarily to save the planet, they are just trying to fill the potholes and growing gaps and slack between energy demand and energy supply... That's it.)

Energy transitions are much harder than they look on paper - and they look almost impossible on paper. No major civilization has ever completed an energy transition and made it out the other side intact. We are either walking on new and uncharted territory of miraculous tight rope continuity, or we just don't yet know we are following those same, familiar footsteps from history. Time will tell!
 
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SpaceBus

Minister of Fire
Nov 18, 2018
7,089
Downeast Maine
I'm glad to be getting my power from Bangor Hydro, expensive as it is. Now that the CMP corridor is being halted both CMP and Versant are saying rates "must" increase. The writing has been on the wall for most fossil fuel use, and it's pretty clear that all the big corporations are finally ready to read it.