Originally published on March 10, 2017.
Superimposed on a tennis court-sized board at ISO New England is a real-time simulation of the region’s power grid.
Roughly 350 generators across the six-state region are connected by a dizzying number of interconnecting lines depicting high-voltage power lines. A series of numbers and symbols tell employees pertinent information, including how much electricity is needed versus how much is being produced from Caribou, Maine, to Stamford, Conn.
“The ISO was created to ensure that the New England power system can deliver competitively priced electricity, whenever and wherever it’s needed,” said Gordon van Welie, president and CEO.
Indeed, the regulators, who work inside a security-guarded, fenced-off facility in Holyoke, Mass., are responsible – in the most basic terms – for making sure Rhode Islanders and all New England can turn on the lights.
In more complex terms, the independent nonprofit supervises day-to-day operations of the region’s bulk power system, administers competitive wholesale electricity markets, and oversees planning to ensure system reliability for now and the future.
Van Welie is concerned about the future. He sees retiring fossil fuel-burning and nuclear power plants throughout New England being replaced by gas-fired power plants, which he believes will jeopardize future fuel security, as the demand for natural gas could exceed gas infrastructure capacity. The dynamic, he worries, could threaten ISO New England from performing its basic responsibility of keeping the lights on.
The issue is also the nuanced backdrop for ongoing energy debates in Rhode Island, where gas advocates and environmentalists are fighting passionately over whether to allow new pipelines, permit a 1,000-megawatt, gas-fired power plant in Burrillville or wait for a larger renewable energy supply.