Should Electricity Ratepayers Pay for New Natural Gas Pipelines in Massachusetts?

February 24, 2016 | 3:41 pm
John Rogers
Energy Campaign Analytic Lead

In a recent post on Massachusetts’s electricity mix—past, present, and future—I flagged natural gas as a fuel that the state has already become dependent on in a big way, and something we have to be careful about not over-investing in. It turns out that this is a clear and present issue in Massachusetts, and that this is the week to do something about it. And there are plenty of reasons to think that the path the state seems headed down on natural gas is not the way to go.

Eversource, one of the state’s large utilities, has asked the Massachusetts department of public utilities (DPU) for permission to make its electricity ratepayers foot the bill for new natural gas pipeline infrastructure. The utility’s filing comes after the DPU authorized this type of action, and the DPU is taking comments on the Eversource proposal this week.

But this idea brings up a lot of questions. Here are a few:

Massachusetts is a “restructured” state… so why am I having to pay for a particular fuel?

Massachusetts overhauled its electricity sector almost two decades ago. A big part of restructuring was separating electricity generation from electricity distribution. That means that your electric utility—the company that owns the wires leading up to your house and bills you each month—doesn’t own the power that supplies you; it just passes through to you the costs based on whatever electricity supplier you’ve chosen.

So the idea of you paying for natural gas pipelines supplying power plants that you might not even sign up to get power from—an investment in infrastructure that might not even serve our broader long-term needs—is… odd.

There are plenty of indications that Massachusetts doesn’t actually need the pipelines that are being proposed. Photo:

There are plenty of indications that Massachusetts doesn’t actually need the pipelines that are being proposed.

Have we done this before?

Er, nope. The office of state Attorney General Maura Healey questioned the legality of what the DPU was considering when this issue first came up. And here’s how it reacted to the DPU’s authorizing decision:

“The Attorney General’s Office is concerned that the Department of Public Utilities’ (DPU) order for the first time authorizes electric distribution utilities to enter into long-term capacity agreements to facilitate gas pipeline expansion—and shift the substantial costs and risks of such long-term investment in pipeline infrastructure to electricity ratepayers.”

Do we even need more pipelines?

That’s a key question. And the answer is: probably not. At least, there are plenty of indications that we don’t actually need the pipelines that are being proposed, that there are other, more attractive ways to go about this, ones less likely to lock us in to costs—and emissions—that we aren’t going to want.

Notably, a report commissioned by the AG Healey’s office found that “the region can maintain electric reliability through 2030, even without additional new natural gas pipelines.” A better answer, they showed, is “cheaper, less carbon intensive ways to ensure electric reliability, like energy efficiency and demand response, that are less risky for ratepayers.”

Another useful analysis, carried out for the Conservation Law Foundation, also came to the conclusion that new pipelines aren’t the way to go (emphasis added):

“One proposed solution is to ‘flood the market’ with new gas via one or more new pipelines, with the multi-billion dollar cost to be borne by electric ratepayers. The other solution… is to maximize the use of existing infrastructure in both the delivery and storage of natural gas… [A]dding additional pipeline capacity is the most expensive and least effective means of addressing New England winter-peak deliverability.”

What the attorney general’s study found. (The rest of this infographic is available here.)

What the attorney general’s study found. (The rest of this infographic is available here.)

Your turn

Eversource isn’t the only Massachusetts utility looking to have its electricity customers pay for pipelines (National Grid, for example, is trying it too), but it’s the first to come up at the DPU.

In a perfect world, the science would guide the decision making on stuff like this, and we’d be all set. But sometimes science needs a little help. If you want to weigh in on the side of science to help Massachusetts reach a rational decision about where we go with natural gas, now’s your chance.

Posted in: Energy

Tags: Massachusetts, natural gas

About the author

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John Rogers is energy campaign analytic lead at the Union of Concerned Scientists with expertise in clean energy technologies and policies and a focus on solar, wind, and natural gas. He co-managed the UCS-led Energy and Water in a Warming World Initiative, a multi-year program aimed at raising awareness of the energy-water connection, particularly in the context of climate change, and motivating and informing effective low-carbon and low-water energy solutions.