Crews work on power lines after a 2017 storm left thousands without power and damaged the power grid. Credit: Gabor Degre / BDN

New England’s electric grid operator warned Monday that power outages are possible if an extended cold snap this winter grips the region and fuel supplies are pinched as demand spikes.

ISO-New England said natural gas pipeline constraints and global supply chain problems related to deliveries of oil and liquefied natural gas are placing New England’s power system at “heightened risk” heading into the winter.

The Holyoke, Massachusetts-based organization said it will meet consumer demand if the winter is mild. But a severe and prolonged cold snap could require emergency actions if generators lack access to fuel, the ISO said.

“If these risks materialize and threaten power system reliability, the ISO will turn to several operating procedures to manage the grid, up to and including controlled power outages,” it said.

Risks cited by the ISO include a severe winter, the global price of oil and liquefied natural gas that could affect storage and deliveries into New England and pipeline constraints as demand spikes simultaneously from heating customers and electricity generators.

Controlled power outages are a “last resort,” the ISO said. It wants to “educate the public that if this step were required, it would be used to protect the region’s power grid from an overall collapse.”

ISO’s warning is the most recent official statement related to sharply rising energy prices. Eversource Energy advised the public Nov. 3 that natural gas heating prices could jump 14 percent, costing an average $30 a month more than last year.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration said in November its short-term energy outlook “remains subject to heightened levels of uncertainty related to the ongoing recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The price of natural gas, which comprises most of the energy generated in New England, averaged $5.51 per million British thermal units in October, up from the September average of $5.16 and an average of $3.25 in the first half of 2021, an increase of nearly 70 percent.

Higher natural gas prices in recent months reflect U.S. inventories that are below the five-year average from 2016–2020, EIA said. Despite high prices, demand for natural gas for electric power generation has remained relatively high. It has combined with strong global demand for U.S. liquefied natural gas to limit downward pressure on prices, EIA said.

Gordon van Welie, president and chief executive officer of ISO New England, said oil and liquefied natural gas have “filled the gaps when extended periods of very cold weather have constrained natural gas pipeline supplies.”

But higher prices globally and pandemic-related supply chain problems could limit their availability in New England, he said.

“The region would be in a precarious position if an extended cold snap were to develop and these fuels were not available,” van Welie said.

The ISO said system operators have “many tools at their disposal” in an emergency, including importing emergency power from neighboring regions, calling on power system reserves and asking businesses and residents to voluntarily conserve energy.

“In severe events, system operators may be forced to call for controlled power outages to protect the overall grid,” ISO said. “Though a drastic step, these controlled outages would be necessary if there is not enough energy supply to meet demand.”

Controlled outages prevent a collapse of the power system that would take days or weeks to repair, ISO said. In controlled outages, the ISO directs local utilities to reduce demand in their areas.

Severe problems would be avoided if forecasts of mild weather turn out to be accurate. The ISO cited an outlook by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration of a warmer than average winter in New England.

Stephen Singer, Hartford Courant