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New England faced an electricity emergency Christmas Eve; the lights stayed on, but the price of power skyrocketed more than eightfold

ISO alert on Christmas Eve

"Power caution" is electric-industryese for "Guys, we could be out of enough reserve power soon."

On Christmas Eve, after a brutal winter storm had swept from one coast to the other and left millions of people in the dark - including 200,000 in the western and northernmost parts of New England - a series of events created an emergency situation for the regional power grid over a couple of hours that afternoon.

In a report issued after the event, ISO New England, which oversees the New England electrical grid from its headquarters in Holyoke, discusses everything that went wrong that day - and just how close New England came to not having enough electricity to power all of its homes and businesses on Dec. 24 had just one more thing gone wrong. The report blames a combination of factors including sudden shortages of the natural gas that is burned to produce more than half our electricity, New England power plants unexpectedly going offline and neighboring grids in New York and Quebec not delivering all of the power they'd been expected to.

Over two hours that afternoon, ISO quickly ratcheted up its emergency alerts, to the point it was just one step from beginning to ask power-plant operators to reduce voltage to try to conserve energy, which consumers might have noticed in the form of dimmer lights.

The problems, in particular a lack of adequate natural gas caused by pipelines in other parts of the country freezing in the brutal cold, affected utilities all along the East Coast. In North and South Carolina, the main electricity provider instituted rolling blackouts to deal with crisis; New England's grid never got near that point, according to the ISO report.

In New England, generating plants that could either switched from natural gas to oil or turned pure oil generators. Normally, burning natural gas accounts for 55% of New England's electricity generation and oil less than 1%, but on that day, oil became New England's top producer of electricity, according to ISO data.

The day before Christmas started as normal as it could in a region that had been hit hard the day before by a storm that had left 200,000 people - most well outside the Boston area - without power. In its daily morning report, issued at 8:30 a.m., ISO forecast it would have 946 MW of surplus capacity ready for peak time, so even if New England used more than the peak forecast amount of 17,510 MWs, the region should be fine.

But as the day progressed, things started going wrong - and then kept going wrong.

The temperatures across the region never reached the predicted highs for the day, meaning increased demand for heating. Most New Englanders don't use electricity for heating - just 15.6% do (17.8% in Massachusetts) - so by itself, that shouldn't have been too much of an issue. But, ISO writes in its report on the day:

As the operating day progressed, the region experienced numerous unexpected generator outages and reductions totaling approximately 2,150 MW and neighboring areas under-delivered energy.

The region was still generating and importing enough electricity to keep all those lights and microwaves and elevators running, but we were running out of the reserve capacity needed to fill any unexpected surges, or gaps caused by generating plants suddenly going offline.

One power-plant owner told ISO it would turn on a 275 MW plant, and ISO asked other generators to turn on whatever plants they could, which would have meant another 380 MW of capacity, but that wasn't enough, because shortly before 4 p.m., the grid was hit with "a significant reduction of a large generating station," i.e., a large plant somewhere suddenly shut down - ISO did not identify which plant or why.

At 4 p.m., after that one large plant cut out, ISO declared an "Abnormal Conditions Alert," the lowest of its emergency alerts, basically putting utilities on notice that the region is facing potential issues.

At 4:30 p.m., ISO declared an "energy emergency alert" and said there was a "capacity deficiency. Power-plant owners were asked to do whatever they could to increase the amount of electricity they were generating. ISO said it would let operators turn on generators that normally would take 30 minutes to spin up to full power generation.

At 4:40 p.m., the drawing down of the "System 30 Minute Operating Reserve constraint" triggered "capacity scarcity condition pricing" in the real-time price of wholesale electricity in the region - from around $300 per MWh earlier in the day to a peak of $2,815. This extra-high pricing remained in effect until after 6 p.m. Even the lower amount was itself higher than the typical pricing on a normal day - such as Jan. 2, when pricing ranged from about $28 per MWh to $107 per MWH.

At 4:45 p.m., ISO went to the next in its series of emergency levels, asking power companies to try to curtail their own energy use, which might free up another 40 MWs of energy.

Around 5:30 p.m., ISO lost another 350 MW of electricity from New England plants - again, it did not identify which ones - and moved the alarm two steps higher, to a level at which it could try to buy emergency electricity from either New England generators that had not yet stepped up, or from similar power grids in New York, Quebec and New Brunswick - on a day when New York and Quebec were already sending less power into New England than originally planned.

But then the grid lucked out: New England made it to the end of peak time at 6 p.m. without having to buy additional power, at potentially expensive rates, as we followed our usual Christmas Eve pattern and began using less electricity. And, ISO continued, power imports to the region, as initially promised by New York and Quebec, began to increase.

Starting at 6:05 p.m., ISO began dropping the severity of its alerts. At 6:05 pm., the "capacity scarcity condition pricing" was ended, immediately dropping prices from $2,815 per MWh to $519. By 7 p.m., all of the other alerts were also cancelled, save for the original low-level "abnormal conditions alert," which remained in effect until 9 p.m.

ISO New England emergency plans for the winter of 2022-2023.
Power System Status Descriptions - defines the various alert statuses mentioned above - we go to OP 4, Action 5.

H/t Nathan G. Phillips.

PDF icon Complete ISO NE report455.06 KB


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Wow. Thanks Adam for the comprehensive report. Now I am curious about the east coast blackout that happened in the’70s. I think…

Forgive the haziness - was born in the early ‘70s and details are hazy. Heck, it could have been a way to get the three of us to bed!

Voting closed 20

Before you were born.

At dusk on November 9, 1965, one of the biggest power failures in history occurs as all of New York state, portions of seven nearby states, and parts of eastern Canada are plunged into darkness. The Great Northeast Blackout began at the height of rush hour, delaying millions of commuters, trapping 800,000 people in New York’s subways, and stranding thousands more in office buildings, elevators, and trains. Ten thousand National Guardsmen and 5,000 off-duty policemen were called into service.
Voting closed 8

the NYC blackout of 77.

Voting closed 9

I was a Freshman at Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School. I'd stayed after school for something I had to do, and took the 5 o'clock bus home. I noticed that everything was dark, and there were no lights on. It was really strange.

Voting closed 6

The 1977 blackout affected most of New York City, and was triggered by a lightning strike that took down the cables that brought in electricity from upstate and Canada.

"Most" because part of Queens was on the Long Island grid, and a few places had their own backup generators.

The blackout, and looting during that night, were a big deal in the city -- if you remember stores with often graffiti-covered steel shutters to protect the front windows, those became common after that blackout.

Voting closed 5

when you close down power plants (L Street Station) and build more condos that require more electricity.

Voting closed 14

This is a regional thing as ISO manages the power grid of New England. This isn't local to any one city or building project.

Voting closed 32

This is the natural outcome in 2022 of having decommissioned an over 100 year old power plant in 2006...

Voting closed 36

The New England grid has become more and more dependent on natural gas as the source for power generation.

Now, renewables are great and coal is horrible, but the discarding of nuclear basically in favor or gas from pipelines is a recipe for trouble. Thankfully we aren't Germany screwed, but we came close on this one.

Voting closed 28

The anon above was in the right ballpark, but the issue is much less "we shut down an old fossil fuel plant" and more "'environmentalists' yelled about nuclear so we don't build it anymore and shut it down, and now are more reliant on fossil fuels because the same 'environmentalists' are also against offshore wind ('my views! the fish!') and powerlines which would bring in more power from HQ ('the pristine woodlands in Maine which happen to be privately-managed timberlands' and NRCM basically got in bed with the natural gas companies and some pretty scary nativism a couple short steps from blood and soil).

If we had more offshore wind (which we may have in the future, if we can get out of our own goddamn way) it would have done quite well on Christmas Eve; winds at ACK were 12 m/s much of the day, which should be optimal, although may have lost some capacity if they shut down during higher gusts (for whatever reason, wind didn't contribute much Dec 24 ISO-wide). Anyway, in theory, we could have a lot more offshore on days like this.

Voting closed 26

...or at least, an unsupported assertion, to say that "the same 'environmentalists' are also against offshore wind". I'm sure it fits the picture that some hold of what an "environmentalist" is, but why not let people speak for themselves in regard to what they want and don't want, rather than presuming to speak for them?

Voting closed 12

The people who say "the people who do X are the same people who do contradictory thing Y" are the same people who get on my nerves.

Voting closed 13

Some hand-painted signs on one run-down house in Bingham, Maine tell us, what exactly about overall political sentiment in New England?

Voting closed 9

Just speaking for myself, I'm all in favor of offshore wind and that Maine transmission line, but not in favor of (most?) new nuclear projects. I don't think it's the same group of people.

Voting closed 9

What does the price change really mean?

How much of this really is market-based and how much is centrally controlled? Who pays the extra money to whom, and when will regular people see this increase reflected on our electric bills (as I'm sure we will)? What is the higher price supposed to incentivize, if power plant operators had already been asked to turn on their extra units, and regular people were not told to reduce our electricity usage?

Voting closed 10

Yet we continue to pay some of the HIGHEST costs for electricity in the nation, if not the world.

Why? We have not built our own generation plants, in fact we've shut more and more of them down and have not backfilled with new generation like wind and solar. We buy more power from elsewhere than we generate ourselves and that's a huge problem.

ISO NE has been warning people for years about this, yet its mum from pol's until something big happens. Thank you Adam for shining a light on this story as other outlets did not report this because nothing 'big happened'. but it will eventually. Its going to.

We have people in Maine who fought the power lines from quebec. "Why are we bearing the brunt of this for people who aren't in Maine". Because Jan, if the big city loses power, you're going to also since we're all connected. But 'my trees' and 'my view' are more important

Like MV and ACK. Same arguements except they got biology folks to chime and say 'it might be bad for the fish'. Cape Wind has been a joke since the day it was announced.. over 15 years ago. It should haven't have taken this long.

And that is going to do us in the end. Its already happening. We allow too many people to speak and voice, then make decisions based on the ones who are the loudest or just 'show up'. We gotta stop allowing this to happen, and start to just do it for 'greater good' and worry about what the NIMBYs say after. As a nation we are being left behind b/c of our 'public process', while other nations move far ahead because their gov't just does it without much public input.

It's killing us... Power here, but I see it in housing discussions, transit, environment... everywhere. Too much NIMBY and nay-sayers and not enough "just do it".

Voting closed 6

MA electric rates are high but they aren't the highest nationwide and certainly not globally. California has higher rates, sometimes much higher.

I agree with you with the rest of your comment although I've got to note the "Ignore NIMBY" crowd always makes exceptions for projects they don't like either such as the East Boston substation.

Voting closed 6