‘Bomb Cyclone’ shows SouthCoast needs offshore wind sooner rather than later
During the peak of the historic “bomb cyclone” winter storm on Jan. 4, the electricity network that serves Cape Cod, the Islands and other parts of the South Coast faced a significant test. The Pilgrim nuclear station in Plymouth went offline when a transmission line snapped in high winds and blizzard conditions, an event that forced curtailment of generation at the Canal plant generating station 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. And during those long hours another outage could have triggered black-outs during three days of horrible conditions.
But what if Vineyard Wind been built and online prior to the storm? The offshore wind project’s 800 megawatts (MW) 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 ten times the 2017 annual average price.
While most electricity in the region comes from burning natural gas during normal conditions, during extreme cold the gas is prioritized for home heating, and electricity generators turn to stored oil. During cold weather conditions that force electric generators to burn emission-intensive oil to fuel their turbines, they release tons of excess greenhouse gases (GHG) like CO2, as well as pollutants impacting local air quality, into the atmosphere. 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 or a similar project been in service, the Vineyard Wind project would have operated at full 800MW power during the storm’s peak. In addition to more than making up for the outage at Pilgrim (which only generates 685 MW), 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 GHGs is roughly the same as the volume of tailpipe emissions produced by 14,000+ cars over the course of a single year.
During the storm, power prices spiked to their highest level in years. Vineyard Wind’s 800 MW would also 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 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 and another $31 million for customers in other New England states.
When it comes to electricity, the recent extreme weather reminds us why the South Coast need offshore wind energy sooner 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 GHG emission reductions and stable wholesale electricity prices during the worst weather that winter has to offer.
Mike Jacobs chairs Vineyard Power Cooperative, a community-owned organization dedicated to a sustainable energy future for Martha’s Vineyard, and leads the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) Climate and Energy Program’s Electricity Markets and Regulatory division.