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Climate Monitor

A weekly roundup of Maine's most urgent environmental and energy-related news from The Maine Monitor.

January 20, 2023

The smokestack of Wyman Station power plant in Yarmouth, as seen from Freeport, Jan. 18, 2023. Photo: Annie Ropeik for The Maine Monitor

A Christmas Eve mystery on the New England electric grid

By Annie Ropeik

If you've ever taken the Amtrak between New England and New York, you may have noticed a lot of power plants — or facilities that resemble power plants. It can be hard to differentiate all those big smokestack-topped buildings flashing by in the Northeast corridor. Nuclear? Gas? A shuttered coal plant? Who owns them? Are they running now? 

I'll often pull up Google Maps on my phone and squint at the satellite view, trying to pinpoint what I just saw. I could try using a public resource like this map from the U.S. Energy Information Administration, but I'd still need to do some sleuthing to learn about ownership and operations — and I only have a vague sense of how to do this because I make a living as an energy journalist. Even then, the data I can typically access tends to be months or years old. 

These are facilities we pay to use every month, that keep our lights on, that can be major sources of planet-warming greenhouse gases and air pollution. I think it's fair to say that it seems much harder than it should be to know where these plants are and what they're up to. 

During the winter storm that began just before Christmas, a few weeks ago, some unknown number of power plants in New England were not there when we needed them. ISO-New England, the entity that oversees the region's power grid, declared what's known as a capacity deficiency around 4:30 p.m. on Christmas Eve, after about 2,150 megawatts "of resources scheduled to contribute power during the evening peak became unavailable." 

ISO called on resources that could spool up quickly — primarily oil plants — to get online and fill the gap. The issue was resolved without requiring conservation measures or rolling blackouts. 

This month, ISO announced that the delinquent generators will be fined roughly $39 million "for failing to meet their obligation during the capacity scarcity conditions," and generators that "over-performed" during the deficiency will get a proportional bonus. 

But the ISO is not saying which generators messed up on Christmas Eve, or which were called upon to make up the loss. 

"The ISO New England information policy is intended to prevent the release of market participant confidential information, especially if that information could be used as an advantage by a competitor," ISO spokesperson Ellen Foley said in an email. "As a result, the ISO doesn’t release information about the operating or financial status of a generating resource. … Charges for underperformance are paid by the underperforming resources, not electricity ratepayers." 

It's true that consumers will be mostly shielded from the high prices caused by the deficiency, and the resulting fines. Our energy bills are made up of much more than just generation costs, and most of the electrons are bought, sold and priced well in advance of any given afternoon. 

But there are other reasons to be interested in this mystery. For one thing, 2,150 MW is a lot of power — about 12% of the peak demand of 17,500 MW forecast for all of New England that night. Put another way, it's roughly the capacity of Millstone Nuclear Power Plant in Connecticut (which you pass by on the Amtrak to New York). Millstone's two reactors, and the one at Seabrook Station in New Hampshire, often supply at least a quarter of the region's electricity. 

Then there's the question of emissions. The ISO says it used mostly oil reserves to address the capacity deficiency on Christmas Eve. Wyman Station in Yarmouth was one plant that was spotted steaming away that afternoon — more here from the AP's David Sharp and Portland Press Herald's Tux Turkel — but we wouldn't have known it ran if we hadn't been looking. 

Federal data on fuel use and emissions at the level of individual power plants is available on a monthly basis, with a two-month lag. So we'll know a little more soon about what the fuel mix looked like in December 2022 — but we still won't be able to zoom all the way into Dec. 24. It's also expected that federal investigations into Christmas Eve energy issues — not just in New England, but nationwide — are forthcoming. But we don't know what details those might reveal. 

The lack of transparency around the Christmas Eve episode has been a hot topic among the region's energy wonks in recent days. Joe LaRusso, a frequent contributor to #energytwitter, has had some excellent threads on the topic

"Extreme weather events like Winter Storm Elliott [the late Dec. 2022 storm] reveal the weak links in any system," he wrote. "How can the public be assured those vulnerabilities have been addressed if ISO-NE won’t identify the plants that failed?" 

Ari Peskoe, the director of the Harvard Electricity Law Initiative, questioned what advantage a competitor could gain from knowing how a certain generator performed at a certain hour weeks prior. Moreover, he said transparency should be a "bedrock principle" as the ISO works with stakeholders to plan a more modern grid that can meet the challenges of climate change. 

"As we look to change policies, whether it's for decarbonization, for affordability, for reliability, we should have all the information to make informed choices," Peskoe told me this week. "One of the major issues that keeps popping up in New England, year after year after year, is this sort of winter reliability issue — and so this seems to be relevant to those discussions." 

Remember the record New England cold snap in January 2018, where temperatures barely cracked single digits for close to two weeks? This was a benchmark episode that grid managers still recall when talking about winter reliability concerns. Another benchmark was the Texas grid's deep freeze, which LaRusso notes was foreshadowed by similar outages a decade prior. 

Back in January 2018, the big worry here was gas supplies — frozen harbors and rising use of gas for home heating meant less available for power plants to burn, meaning ISO-NE had to lean heavily on dwindling oil reserves. We still don't know exactly what happened this past Christmas Eve, but the ISO says it wasn't a fuel supply problem, contrary to some reports. 

Close to a year after the 2018 cold snap, I went to an energy conference in Manchester, N.H., put on by a trade group of factories that often lobbies against renewable energy policies in the name of keeping rates low. Someone from Eversource, the big electric utility in New Hampshire and other parts of New England, gave a presentation in a hotel ballroom that included this slide:

A slide from an Eversource Energy presentation at the Dec. 6, 2018 Business & Industry Association energy symposium in Manchester, N.H. Photo: Annie Ropeik for NHPR

This is the claim that's stuck with me: The emissions from the oil the New England grid burned to get through the 2018 cold snap were enough to cancel out most of the solar power installed in Massachusetts at the time. 

Analysis by E&E News found the region got more of its electricity from oil this past Christmas Eve, at 29% of the fuel mix, than on any day since January 2018. Episodes like this don't happen in vacuum — they have real implications for New England's climate efforts. The more details we can access about how our grid works in these moments, the better we may be able to adapt. 

A free Maine Monitor Event: Sea Rise & The Consequences of the Dec. 23 Storm

Join The Maine Monitor for a virtual panel discussion moderated by climate and environment reporter Kate Cough next Thursday, Jan. 26, 2023, at 7 p.m.

Kate will ask a panel of state and local experts and activists who are tackling the impact of sea rise on Maine coastal communities about why the Dec. 23 storm had heavy consequences for Maine, what role sea rise played, and what we can learn from the experience.

Register here to receive the Zoom link. It's free!

Summing up our recent PFAS project

Sea Change columnist Marina Schauffler summed up her terrific, multi-part project on "forever chemicals" in this column last week. 

One of Marina's conclusions: Despite advances in environmental legislation, "the U.S. approach to chemical regulation remains largely unchanged. We are still subjected to what (Rachel) Carson aptly termed an “appalling deluge of chemical pollution.”  

Check it out.

In other Maine news:


Offshore wind:

Federal regulators advanced Maine's proposal for a floating offshore wind research array and met in Portland Thursday to discuss where other future offshore turbines might go.

Green jobs:

Maine community colleges will receive federal funds to create training programs in wind turbine safety and the "emerging industries" of electric vehicle repair and sustainable greenhouse agriculture.

Winter warmth:

This slushy January is taking its toll on winter recreation in Maine, creating an early mud season for loggers and making for iffy ice conditions on lakes and ponds.


A new study finds that climate change is causing a decline in the tiny organisms that make up the foundation of the food chain in the Gulf of Maine.


Maine Rep. Chellie Pingree calls for an investigation into HGTV influencers paid by the propane industry to peddle propaganda against heat pumps.


Climate change is more bad news for Maine's already declining honeybee populations.


Legislators eye more changes to prevent cost-shifting from community solar projects.


Some see an opportunity to consider new ways of managing lobster during a six-year delay to new gear regulations aimed at protecting endangered right whales. State officials say the fishery needs to accept that change is coming.

Whales & wind:

Amid a spate of whale deaths in the mid-Atlantic, federal officials say site preparations for offshore wind projects are not at fault.

CMP Corridor:

Hydro-Quebec says it will make good on its deal with Massachusetts to bring renewable energy into New England, despite uncertainty surrounding the Central Maine Power transmission line needed to import the power.


New data shows how much Maine harvested in potatoes and other crops last year. Farmers have one month left to participate in the latest federal farm census.


The region is now officially a National Heritage Area, the first in the state.


Levels of the toxic chemicals will decline in livestock if farmers remove the source of contamination from their land, state officials say.

Invasive species:

More than $1.5 million has been raised to fight invasive plants like milfoil in Cobbossee Lake.


There was a 3.3-magnitude earthquake in Dedham, near Bangor, last weekend.

Wood bank:

Demand is way up at Waldo County's only wood bank, which provides firewood to people struggling with high home heating costs.


Last year was the National Park's second-busiest on record, with nearly 4 million visitors, just behind 2021.


A new condo complex in Portland's East End is topped with solar panels that will cut energy costs for residents in half.

Thanks for reading. See you next week.

Kate Cough covers energy and the environment for The Maine Monitor. She's a graduate of Columbia University and an 8th generation Mainer born in Portland who's now decamped Downeast. You can reach her at [email protected] or @kaitlincough.

Annie Ropeik is a freelance environmental reporter based in Portland and a board member with the Society of Environmental Journalists. You can reach her at [email protected] or @aropeik, or at her website.

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