Weaned on Coal, State Still Faces Challenges
By Alex Hyacinthe, State House correspondent
BOSTON – Over the years, Massachusetts’ electricity producers have weaned the state from coal-generated power to a more eco-friendly mix of natural gas, hydropower and a growing list of alternative sources from wind to solar power.
This shift earned the state first place in the American Council for Energy-Efficient Economy 2013 Clean Energy Report and second place in clean energy technology.
But despite such successes, the state’s energy grid still faces challenges. Massachusetts uses more coal-generated electricity than some of its New England neighbors. A lack of infrastructure is making it difficult to bring in more natural gas. And although state law now mandates the use of alternative fuel sources, the lower pollution options are less cost effective than traditional fossil fuels.
The increased use of natural gas to generate electricity has been an economic and environmental solution in the commonwealth, according to Mike DiMauro, an engineer with the Massachusetts Municipal Wholesale Electric Company, a non-profit, public corporation that works with the state to provide advice and funding to municipal utilities.
“Some of [the reason for natural gas reliance] was cost, some of it was the availability of natural gas, and of course there are the pollution aspects of it,” he said.
According to data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s generating electricity with natural gas produces half the carbon dioxide, less than a third of the nitrogen oxides, and 1 percent of the sulfur oxide generated by coal.
“As far as fossil fuel emissions go they are the lowest emissions you can have while burning fossil fuels,” DiMauro said.
But the commonwealth uses coal at a higher rate than neighboring states.
In 2011, the most recent full-year data available from the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), Massachusetts generated 68 percent of its electricity from natural gas, and 11 percent from coal.
Very little of New Hampshire’s electricity was generated by coal. Thirty-three percent came from natural gas and 42 percent came from the Seabrook nuclear plant.
Rhode Island generated 98 percent of its electricity from natural gas. None came from coal.
Less than 2 percent of New York State’s electricity was generated from coal.
Massachusetts’ use of coal will decline with the scheduled shutdown of the two remaining coal-burning power plants in the state. Brayton Point, the largest coal-fired plant in Massachusetts, is scheduled to close in 2017. Salem Harbor will be shut down in the spring of 2014 and replaced with a natural gas plant by 2016.
“The regulations [on coal emissions], the age of coal burning plants, and the predominance of gas-fired, combined-cycle power plants, is what drove reliance on gas,” DiMauro said.
Economic factors also have contributed to the natural gas’ primary role in Massachusetts’ fuel mix.
According to the 2011 EIA data it cost about $66 per megawatt hour to use coal for electric generation, about $83 per megawatt hour from nuclear powers and about $16 per megawatt hour to generate electricity from natural gas.
The dramatically lower cost of natural gas is the result of an equally dramatic increase in supplies. The development of “fracking” – short for hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling – has allowed energy companies to tap large reserves of oil and natural gas.
Natural gas production in the northeast alone rose from about two billion cubic feet per day in 2008 to about 12 billion cubic feet per day so far this year, according to the EIA. After increasing production by 72 percent from 2011 to 2012, preliminary data indicates that Pennsylvania may be the nation’s second largest producer of natural gas in 2013.
But there are problems with relying on natural gas as the constant, cheap source for the state’s electric generation. Paul Bachman, research director at Suffolk University’s Beacon Hill Institute for Applied Economics, says the network of pipelines needs to grow to be able to carry additional supplies of natural gas. .
“The problem right now is that infrastructure needs to catch up to discovery,” he said.
According to the EIA natural gas supplies increased by about 20 percent nationally from 2007 to 2012 while available cubic feet of pipeline increased by about 17 percent. The same five years saw the electric power sector’s appetite for natural gas grow by 33 percent.
DiMauro said it takes large amounts of time and money and red tape to build and maintain natural gas pipelines. New construction is also highly controversial
“Nobody wants a pipeline going through their backyard or their neighborhood,” he said
An alternative, or at least a supplement, to natural gas could be renewable energy sources, which accounted for about 6 percent of the commonwealth’s electricity in 2011
Renewable sources such as wind, solar, and hydropower come with the bonus of being emissions free. But their costs remain higher than fossil fuels.
Land-based wind generations costs four times as much as natural gas fired electricity; off shore wind generation is 13 times Hydropower costs slightly more than land-based wind generation. .
Canadian hydropower provides 60 percent of electricity in Canada, but only 7 percent in the United States.
Jacob Irving, president of the Canadian Hydropower Association, believes that importing Canadian hydropower to American markets, such as Massachusetts, could contribute efficiency to the power mix.
“We currently have an installed capacity of 74,000 megawatt, and can more than double that to 160,000 megawatts,” he said while acknowledging there would be what he called a “very large up-front cost,” said Irving.
“Hydropower projects require more time, more planning, more up-front consideration,” he said. “But then, if you amortize the project over the life, you see real economic advantages.”
Despite the higher costs for alternative energy sauces, the state’s 2008
Green Communities Act mandates the state’s commercial power suppliers by part of their energy from alternative sources
The law requires the installation of 250 megawatts of solar power by 2017. The commonwealth has already accomplished that goal and is ranked fourth in the nation in installed solar capacity by the Solar Energy Industries Association. Gov. Deval Patrick has asked that 1,600 megawatts of solar be in place by 2020.
Wind projects also play a part in Massachusetts’ energy mix, with the controversial
Cape Wind plan for Nantucket Sound leading the way. The $2.6 billion project would place 130 wind turbines in the Atlantic Ocean off Nantucket Island, potentially generating enough electricity to supply 75 percent of Cape Cod the islands electricity.
Mark Rodgers, a spokesman for the project, acknowledged that wind energy plays a limited role in Massachusetts’ fuel energy mix now, but said continuing development of more efficient equipment and technologies.
“In the second half of the century, New England could be entirely powered by a combination of sources like wind, solar,” said Rodgers.