Archaic Rules & Dirty Fuels


Jan 03, 2023

Winters in New England can be bitterly cold, dark, and dangerous, making dependable power generation essential for public health and safety. Natural gas is the standard energy source, but fuel oil is the fallback for ISO New England when gas is in short supply or expensive. CO2 emissions from fuel oil generation are about 3,670 pounds per megawatt hour of electricity, while natural gas CO2 emissions are about 886 pounds per megawatt hour.

Public opposition to expansion of natural gas pipelines has led to tight supply of natural gas, with price spikes (harsh weather or geopolitical upheavals) or insufficient supply limiting the ability to meet surges in demand.

Fueling Pollution

Last winter, New England power stations were forced to burn 1.7 million barrels of fuel oil to produce enough power, around 10% of the region’s electricity. Nearly 3.5 billion pounds of CO2 was released into the atmosphere in January 2022 from using fuel oil to maintain power production – 48 times the January 2021 fuel oil emissions.

Just two weeks ago, during the Artic blast, New England generators once again had to rely on fuel oil. On December 24th, almost 40% of the regional grid was powered during peak hours by burning fuel oil. Spot electricity prices hit $1,800/megawatt hour as national demand soared and ISO New England declared an emergency, asking consumers to conserve power.

Energy Options

A government focus on subsidizing intermittent solar and wind (aka “green” energy) has left the northeast U.S. with fuel oil as the only dependable alternate fuel. Fuel oil is rarely used for modern electricity generation, excepting a few island nations with no affordable alternatives. Since Three Mile Island, U.S. nuclear power has been heavily restricted.

While about 8% of New England’s power is provided by renewable sources, it is highly variable and unreliable: 4% from wind/solar (which lack storage capacity), and the other 4% from garbage combustion and recovered landfill gas.

Policy Obstacles

Policymakers, at the regional and federal level, have created a forced shortage of natural gas in New England by both blocking pipeline construction to transport gas from the prolific Marcellus shale production areas, and through an obsolete legal restriction, the Jones Act, that restricts American port-to-port movement of domestic liquid natural gas (LNG). To fill the need for natural gas in cold weather, LNG is sometimes purchased from the Middle East or Russian suppliers, often at exorbitant prices.

The Cleaner Option: Domestic Natural Gas

Building pipeline infrastructure to transport U.S. natural gas from production sites to generation facilities for electricity is obviously a better option and provides a bridge between the future promise of renewables and the present realities of technology. We have the cleaner option right here in the U.S. – Let’s use it.