Electric grid in Massachusetts is not ready for the future (Commentary)

Massachusetts is no stranger to bad weather, and recent harsh spells have been challenging even by the hardiest New Englander’s standards.

Winter storms, like the March Nor’easter that knocked power out in 80,000 homes across central and western Massachusetts, keep challenging the electricity grid’s reliability. It should come as no surprise that a recent report by federal energy regulators warned the entire country’s electric systems are headed toward a “very catastrophic situation in terms of reliability” — and that Massachusetts is in a region deemed to be at an elevated risk. “Reliability,” in government-speak, means we’re about to have a lot more power outages, leaving us in the dark without electricity for unknown lengths of time.

In the face of this growing threat, utilities must be allowed to strengthen the state’s transmission and distribution systems to more safely and reliably deliver the power necessary to keep the lights on right now. That’s to say nothing of meeting the growing electricity demand Massachusetts will need because of policies that require even more electricity to power the transportation and heating sectors of its economy.

Think electric vehicles and heat pumps.

As many have been warning, including the region’s grid operator, ISO New England, the simple, unfortunate truth is that today’s grid cannot handle these new challenges. The grid of the future will have to be smarter, stronger, cleaner — and much, much bigger.

In fact, it must grow by more than half, requiring the addition of 47,300 gigawatt-miles of new power lines by 2035, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

To accomplish this, we must dispense with the bureaucracy that continually bogs down infrastructure and power generation projects. A successful evolution of our electric generation mix requires us to move now, not in months or even years while permitting battles are waged at the local and state levels.

Legislation carried by state Rep. Jeffrey Roy, chair of the Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy, that would help expedite permitting for electric decarbonization infrastructure projects, is worth a hard look. Rather than a fractured, redundant permitting system, a streamlined application process overseen by the state would help quicken the pace of reviews and approvals while still subjecting projects to the scrutiny needed to protect the environment and communities.

All communities will have to step up. The investment necessary to ensure a reliable and robust grid of the future must be borne by all and cannot fall victim to opposition from people who want to keep their lights on and see emissions reduced but don’t want to be inconvenienced by the infrastructure development required to deliver those two things.

To be clear, this isn’t a problem of potential supply. Regulators say there’s enough power sources, including wind, natural gas and solar, around the nation waiting to connect to the grid — it’s just mired in a bureaucratic morass.

Just 21% of new projects that entered into the interconnection process between 2000 and 2017 were operational by the end of 2022, according to a recent study by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Projects are taking longer to complete the interconnection study process and come online, with many developers delaying or giving up their projects in frustration.

Massachusetts is looking to add thousands of megawatts of new renewable energy to meet the state’s environmental goals. That requires hardened and smarter infrastructure that won’t be easily knocked offline and can get power back on faster when outages do occur, which should include nuclear and natural gas infrastructure that can ensure backup is there.

We need miles of new power lines and dozens of new substations. Locating them won’t be easy, but we need to streamline the process in ways that balance the importance of these projects to get power to where it needs to be with the impact to local communities as well as costs to consumers and the environment. Done wrong, it’s a recipe for a costly failure that will hurt families and small businesses.

Our ability to remain economically competitive and achieve Massachusetts’ environmental obligations requires a reliable electrical system — and siting reform is a long-overdue need to meet and overcome these challenges.

Marc Brown is the New England executive director for the Consumer Energy Alliance.

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