Where does your power come from?
By Michael Morton/Daily News staff
The MetroWest Daily News
Posted May 23, 2010
The locomotive-sized generating engines of Hudson Light & Power often lie silent beneath the soaring ceiling of the town department's Cherry Street plant, but workers can coax them to life within 30 minutes if price dictates.
Allan Young/ for Daily News and Wicked Local
Hudson Light & Power Superintendent Dan Murphy works
in the control room at the Cherry Street station.
In preparation for the possible activation, staff study historical climate data, weather predictions, electrical market bids and planned shutdowns of larger, commercial plants. But sometimes weather forecasts get blown, providers unexpectedly go down or outside transmission sputters, causing a scramble.
As recent events in Cape Cod, West Virginia and the Gulf of Mexico have shown, energy can prove a complex, shifting, occasionally volatile commodity, finely balanced most of the time, wildly out of control at other moments.
"This is a gamble, wouldn't you say?" Hudson plant Superintendent Dan Murphy recently asked a colleague when discussing pricing.
Consider the nerve center of the region's electrical grid, run by the nonprofit ISO New England. It sits in a two-story, windowless room in Holyoke, centered around an electronic billboard 47 feet long and 12 feet high.
The display is essentially a scaled-down circuit board of the entire system, more than 8,000 miles of transmission lines reduced to a few dozen connections drawn between plants, major substations, and links to Canada and New York. A few key names appear from MetroWest and Greater Milford: West Framingham, West Medway, Speen Street.
Pod-bound engineers stare at monitors, charged with round-the-clock monitoring of power generation, transmission, distribution, use, reliability and stability.
Electricity can't be stored, so a balance is sought between supply and demand. Companies can be called on to reduce their load through commercial arrangements, and backup plants are paid to be ready at a moment's notice.
"Any different kind of thing could happen," ISO spokeswoman Ellen Foley said while looking at the board recently. "I couldn't even put a number on it."
It's a well-rehearsed, well-executed dance, far from the view of consumers.
"Prior to working here, I'd get my electric bill in the mail, and that would be it," Foley said.
But those bills can be steep, especially with a gaggle of children like the Nugents of Hudson. Call them Todd and Erin, plus eight, ranging in age from 8 months to 15 years.
"When they talk about a carbon footprint, I'm always curious what ours is," Erin said during a tour of her home, where laundry baskets spread over a dining room table indicated constant washer and drier use.
The family paid $177 for electricity last month, but expects to hit $200 with air-conditioning season.
"I get upset with them," Todd Nugent said of his children. "I sit there and do the bills, and I say, 'You've got to shut stuff off."'
While most MetroWest and Greater Milford customers are served by National Grid or NStar, Hudson residents like the Nugents and those in Shrewsbury get electricity through municipally owned utilities.
Both municipal departments own a portion of the Seabrook nuclear plant in New Hampshire, cover a small fraction of their needs with Niagara Falls hydroelectric shares and tap the ISO-managed, bid-based wholesale market for a large chunk of their demand, a source Shrewsbury is heavily reliant upon.
Hudson is more likely to sign direct contracts with providers and has a plant to turn on when prices need to be tempered, running on diesel or natural gas.
Natural gas is a cleaner, more efficient fuel and drives electricity prices. Across the New England grid last year, natural gas fueled 30 percent of electrical generation, nuclear 29 percent, coal 10 percent, dual diesel-natural gas units 10 percent and other sources, including renewable projects and imported power, the remaining 21 percent, ISO figures show.
National Grid and NStar won't disclose their lists of contracted providers both companies lock in deals rather than rely on the wholesale market but the collective fuel breakdowns of their suppliers are similar.
While all generated power goes on the larger grid and individual electrons can't be tracked, power plants tend to provide electricity to nearby homes and businesses when on.
No new plants are planned for the area. But older stations in Framingham and Medway use trucked-in fuel oil, while newer facilities in Milford, Bellingham and Blackstone burn natural gas from pipelines. The Millbury trash incinerator, the recipient of many towns' garbage, also produces enough power for 57,000 homes.
Roughly half the proposed plants in New England's queue would run on natural gas, while a quarter would tap the wind and a tenth the rivers. Oil, coal and nuclear barely register.
"We're really going to be shifting away from the conventional power plants," Foley said.
In Massachusetts, commercial utilities like NStar and National Grid are required to increase their share of renewable energy 1 percent each year, starting with a 2010 base of 5 percent.
But alternative energy remains pricey, with wind, the most promising, far from high-demand areas and requiring new transmission lines. National Grid's deal to take half the power from the long-challenged Cape Wind project is expected to add $1.59 to the average monthly bill.
"On one side, you have environmental and consumer interest in renewables, but they are quite expensive," National Grid spokesman David Graves said.
Responding to customer inquiries, NStar established a program for residents to subsidize wind farms in Maine and upstate New York, willingly tacking on $4 to $7 to monthly bills. Again, subscribers don't get those specific electrons, but they do contribute to greening the grid.
National Grid offers a similar option running from $7.50 to $12 more per month. But out of 1.1 million Massachusetts customers, only 6,137 have signed up. Likewise, NStar's program is used by just 8,000 of its 1.1 million customers.
Shrewsbury is looking to diversify its portfolio when a Western Massachusetts wind farm opens, and Hudson, which is already 72 percent greenhouse-gas free, has spoken with Cape Wind. But the department needs to weigh the benefits with the costs, wishing to do its part, but only if it can afford to do so.
"Are customers willing to pay much more for renewable?" asked Hudson Assistant Manager Brian Choquette. "Maybe, maybe not."
Homeowners producing solar or wind power can sell it back to the grid, but there, too, the start-up costs remain an obstacle, though there are state and federal tax breaks and rebates offered by the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center.
Nearly 900 residents have won rebates for solar panels, knocking 40 percent off the average installation cost of $30,000. Brokers are also starting to lease roof space from homeowners, but the question remains how widespread residential alternative energy systems will become, and how soon.
"When will it be a significant portion of the residential market?" asked Andy Brydges, an energy center program director. "I can't predict."
In Hudson, Erin Nugent has gazed longingly at a wind turbine in Berlin, while her husband has pondered solar panels but doesn't know where to begin.
For now, he will keep reminding his children to turn off unneeded lights, a perpetual source of frustration.
"I turn my light off when I go to school," 15-year-old daughter Shannon told him recently. Then she reconsidered, lowering her estimate to "50-50."
It's a start, they decided.
(Michael Morton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 508-626-4338.)