The latest winter worry: Rolling blackouts


If this winter brings with it prolonged cold snaps, New England might be in for energy shortages, one electric company says.

The latest winter worry: Rolling blackouts
Central Maine Power utility lines are seen Oct. 6, 2021, in Pownal, Maine. Robert F. Bukaty/AP Photo

This winter’s heating woes might not be limited to high bills for customers across the state: One small Massachusetts electric company is warning of a chance of “rolling blackouts.”  

“For the last few years, the reliability of the electric grid has been deteriorating, especially in the winter in New England. This year is even worse. If there is an extended cold snap, there is a high probability of rolling blackouts,” General Manager of Groton Electric Light Department Kevin P. Kelly said in a statement posted online

Kelly explains that the situation has been developing for years as baseload generation has been shut down in New England, with coal, oil, and nuclear plants being closed. In January 2022, 11% of the electricity produced in New England came from diesel fuel, Kelly wrote.  

“At the present time, diesel fuel storage on the entire eastern seaboard is at historical lows and the government is creating a situation where refining in America is becoming so costly that the refiners are steadily closing,” Kelly said in the statement. “In the last year, America has lost over one million barrels per day of refining capacity. That cannot be restored quickly and will have to be made up using overseas suppliers.”

ISO New England, the regional transmission company, has yet to issue its winter outlook (that will come in early December), but spokesperson Ellen Foley said in a statement emailed to that the company’s initial analysis shows the region should have sufficient electricity and fuel supplies under mild and moderate winter conditions. 

“Only in the most severe events, if conservation and other measures were insufficient to balance energy supply and consumer demand, would the ISO call for controlled power outages,” Foley wrote. “I do want to make clear while our job is to prepare for the worst case scenario, controlled power outages would be a last resort in an extreme situation and not something we are anticipating.”

If a prolonged cold snap does hit the region, ISO New England has procedures to monitor energy supplies and identify problems early, Foley wrote. 

Kelly advised people to be prepared as winter weather rolls in, recommending customers fill up tanks of heating oil and propane soon, test generators, and if they have a wood burning or pellet stove, to have at least one week’s worth on hand. 

“Currently, New England is in acceptable shape regarding electricity, but the real challenge will be any extended periods of time where the temperature drops below 10 degrees,” Kelly said. “The critical issue is the duration of the cold snap, every day longer the situation gets worse and worse. My expectation is that in a long cold snap they would keep the blackouts as short as possible to avoid freezing pipes, probably on the order of three hours rotating throughout New England until the temperature moderates.”

Consumers would receive warning before any such blackout, Kelly said.

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