Natural Gas Power Reliance Factors Heavily in Massachusetts Net-Zero Actions

Lawmakers in Massachusetts have passed a bill that eyes net-zero greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions statewide by 2050, setting interim GHG reduction targets to achieve reductions of least 85% below 1990 levels within the next 30 years.

On Jan. 4, both chambers of legislature passed S.2995, “An Act Creating a Next-Generation Roadmap for Massachusetts Climate Policy,sending it to Gov. Charlie Baker, who plans to act on it by Jan. 14. Baker, who in April 2020 committed the state to net-zero emissions by 2050, last week also released two reports that detail policies and strategies to maximize the state’s ability to meet the ambitious target. 

Offshore Wind a Key Emphasis

S.2995 overhauls Massachusetts’s 2008 climate law, which set an 80% GHG emissions reduction compared to 1990 levels by 2050, by speeding up interim targets. Under the bill, emissions in the state would need to fall to at least 50% by 2030 and 75% by 2040, and it also sets interim goals every five years. 

The bill also sets sub-limits for specific GHG-intensive sectors, including the electric power, transportation, commercial and industrial heating and cooling, residential heating and cooling, industrial processes, and natural gas distribution and service.  

According to the American Clean Power Association (ACP)—a January 2021–launched trade group that merges renewables interests, including the group formerly known as the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA)—the legislation raises the state’s Renewable Portfolio Standard target to 40% by 2030. Of specific significance is that the bill authorizes an additional 2,400 MW of offshore wind procurement, creating a new total offshore target of 5,600 MW, ACP noted. 

Under current law (including legislation passed in 2016 and in 2019), Massachusetts can currently procure 3,200 MW of offshore wind by 2035, with a 1,600 MW set for 2027. In 2018, Massachusetts utilities selected the 800-MW Vineyard Wind project as the winner of its first offshore wind solicitation. Though National Grid USA, Eversource Energy, and Unitil Corp have so far signed power purchase agreements for Vineyard Wind at a total levelized price of $65/MWh, the project being built under a joint venture between Avangrid Renewables and Copenhagen Infrastructure Partners recently halted the project after selecting GE as its preferred supplier of wind turbine generators. According to GE, Vineyard Wind expects to reach financial close in the second half of 2021 and to begin delivering clean energy to Massachusetts in 2023.

Massachusetts also selected the 804-MW Mayflower Wind project in October 2019 as its second offshore wind solicitation. National Grid USA, Eversource Energy, and Unitil Corp. signed contracts for the projects in January 2020.

The expanded offshore wind target may have implications for its current power fleet, which currently relies heavily on natural gas as fuel. In September 2020, the state produced 79% its 1,415 TWh monthly generation from natural gas–fired plants, with the remainder coming from hydropower (5%) and non-hydroelectric renewables (16%), according to the Energy Information Administration.  

Two Climate Reports Explore Natural Gas’ Future Role

Days before Legislature acted, Gov. Baker’s office on Dec. 30 rolled out two reports—the Massachusetts 2050 Decarbonization Roadmap Report and an interim 2030 Clean Energy and Climate Plan (CECP)that detail policies and strategies “to equitably and cost-effectively reduce emissions and combat climate change.”

The 2050 roadmap—one of the first of its kind in the nation, as the governor’s office noted—essentially outlines eight potential pathways to net-zero emissions. One pathway, which considers “all options,” finds that deep electrification and a broad renewable buildout could “create a reliable energy system that is only marginally more expensive than today.” 

Other pathways explore a variety of scenarios, including those that explor limited offshore wind; limited efficiency; weaning away from pipeline gas for buildings; 100% renewable primary energy; no thermal; more regional coordination; and a high reliance on distributed energy resources. 

The roadmap concludes that a limited offshore wind pathway would require build out of new clean resources, including new nuclear, and a reliance on zero-carbon fuels that would be needed for grid balancing and end-uses—but these could require technological breakthroughs and lead to “dramatically higher costs in 2050.” A substantially higher reliance on solar power, especially utility-scale ground-mounted solar and new long-duration energy storage, meanwhile, would also lead to dramatically higher costs, it suggests.

Costs are a big factor. Restricting either regional transmission buildout or retiring existing thermal capacity— in the absence of a technological, cost, and commercialization breakthrough in long-duration energy storage or another dispatchable resource—could have significant cost and resource tradeoffs, Massachusetts’  newly released  2050 Decarbonization Roadmap Report finds.

Decarbonizing the electricity system—which is currently responsible for about 19% of the state’s GHG emissions—will instead require a “balanced range of complementary resources and technologies, including imported hydropower and additional high-voltage interstate transmission, is required to reliably operate a cost-effective, ultra-low emissions electricity grid based on variable renewable resources,” it finds.

Offshore wind will play a major role: “The pathways analysis forecasted approximately 15 GW of Massachusetts offshore wind by 2050, with New England’s offshore wind capacity growing to more than 30 GW by 2050, unless purposefully constrained in the model,” it says. 

However, the state will still need to rely on its gas power resources for reliability, it suggests. With the closure of Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station in Plymouth in 2019, only two nuclear generating facilities operate in New England—in Seabrook, New Hampshire, and Millstone, Connecticut—supplying about 20% of the region’s load. 

The report also highlights added flexibility from abundant hydropower in New England, New York, Quebec, and New Brunswick, which could come to fruition through the New England Clean Energy Connect 100% Hydro project. That project, which could provide 9.5 TWh of hydropower and increase regional transmission capacity by 1.2 GW through a 145-mile transmission line, recently garnered a key approval from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The $950 million project, which will be paid for by Massachusetts electric customers, is now awaiting municipal-level permitting and a presidential permit from the Department of Energy, which is required to construct the cross-border transmission component of the line to Quebec.  

“Currently, the lowest cost method for maintaining reliability on the few days each year with very low renewable energy production is the intermittent use of thermal power plants, primarily gas-fired power plants,” the report says. “Due to the low capital costs associated with gas-fired electricity, their relatively low emissions profile, and because of the speed with which a gas plant can be turned on to produce electricity, these already-existing resources are compatible with providing electricity when wind power is unavailable.

However, “As the quantity of renewables on the system grows, Massachusetts’ use of, and reliance on, gas-fired generation will decline precipitously; these units could continue to be both useful and valuable but serve in a new role as a long-duration reliability resource,” the report says. “In such a role, the use of gas-fired generation in 2050 would be minimal and fully consistent with achieving net-zero emissions statewide.” 

A reliance on gas generation would help the state closely approach—“but not reach”—zero GHGs by 2050. However, “Forcing the retirement of all thermal capacity in the electricity system, rather than capping or managing emissions and operational profiles as part of new reliability service markets, represents an unnecessary operational risk to the regional energy system that is likely to ultimately result in higher costs for consumers and higher environmental impact,” it says.

Blending hydrogen produced from surplus renewables could help. Carbon capture, however, may not be a practical option because “carbon storage is extremely limited in New England,” it says. 

Draft Roadmap for a Low-Carbon Future

The governor’s draft 2030 CECP, which will be finalized this spring, suggests that the state is so far on track to achieve its initial interim 2020 emissions limit—a 25% reduction below 1990 levels. In October 2020, the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection’s updates to its GHG Emissions Inventory showed that in 2018, emissions were 22.2% below emissions in 1990.

Getting to 45% in 2030—which will require a 4.2 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent reduction in the electric sector alone over the next 10 years—will mean a widespread buildout of renewables. Cost-effective and technical feasible approaches it outlines include 7 GW of new clean energy projects (including 3.2 GW of solar, 3.2 GW of offshore wind, and 1 GW of new transmission to Quebec). Planning is also underway for another 6 GW of additional offshore wind and 2 GW of solar by 2040, the draft 2030 CECP notes.

However, Massachusetts will also need to limit emissions from imported electricity, it says. The state is already spearheading regional efforts to decarbonize the regional electric grid. In October, it joined with Connecticut, Maine, Rhode Island, and Vermont to call on ISO-New England—the wholesale market on which the restructured states rely—to reform its regional electricity market design, transmission planning process, and governance to better accommodate the states’ clean energy policies. 

Today’s wholesale electricity market and organizational structures: (1) are based on a market design that is misaligned with our States’ clean energy mandates and thereby fails to recognize the full value of our States’ ratepayer-funded investments in clean energy resources; (2) lack a proactive transmission planning approach and tools that facilitate the development of a future system with more clean, dynamic and distributed resources; and (3) are based on a governance structure that is not transparent to the states and customers it serves, with a mission that is not responsive to States’ legal mandates and policy priorities,” the states said in a joint statement.  “Recognizing these shortfalls, it is time to make the necessary changes to meet the challenges of our 21st century energy transition.” 

The states said they have worked with the New England States Committee on Electricity (NESCOE) to develop a vision document outlining key areas of necessary reform. “In the coming months, our States will convene open and accessible forums to ensure that all interested stakeholders have an opportunity to participate in further refinement of our shared Vision for market reform, system planning, reliability, and governance,” they said. 

Sonal Patel is a POWER senior associate editor (@sonalcpatel@POWERmagazine).

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