We live in a world that is facing a climate crisis that is manifesting itself everywhere through record heat, floods, droughts, storms, and wildfires. United Nations scientists have predicted at least three feet of sea level rise by the end of the century, and in the Northeast, sea level increase threatens to happen even quicker. And without looking any further, this year the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has predicted for Boston 19 days of high-tide flooding without even including rain or stormy weather.
Bold action is needed now more than ever to mitigate negative impacts like chronic inundations while we adapt to the changes that are already underway. Here is where the energy sector must play a key role given its responsibility in generating global warming emissions from fossil-fueled power plants, and the scale and speed of the transition to clean energy that needs to happen now and in years to come.
But, what could this transition to clean energy look like at a local level? What kind of energy infrastructure investments should be prioritized? And, how can we make sure that this transition reaches everyone in our society?
The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) and GreenRoots looked at a proposed substation project for East Boston, Massachusetts. This blog post offers an overview to the reasoning behind this project, concerns from the community around this substation, and alternatives that will facilitate a just energy transition for residents of East Boston.
Eversource’s Current Plan: A New High Voltage Electrical Substation in East Boston
Eversource, a regional utility, is planning to build a 115,000-volt substation, “East Eagle,” in East Boston. The project, which will cost ratepayers almost $50 million (including recent change), was originally presented in 2014 to ISO New England (the regional transmission organization). Since then, numerous questions have arisen around the need for, and appropriateness of, this project.
Eversource has claimed that the East Eagle substation is needed to address area load growth. However, the latest 10-year forecast from ISO New England shows that, even under extreme summer weather, expected peak demand (the highest amount of electricity used in a single hour) for the overall region will actually decline over time (see green line in graph below). While the situation may be different in the area targeted by this substation, Eversource’s justifications have shifted over time, such that the need is a lot less clear.
Community Concerns on Substation Risks
The concerns from the community in Eastie and experts are much clearer, and go well beyond the question of need for a substation and focus on the risks it represents. The proposed substation would be:
- Located in an area that is already getting flooded. Over the next 50 years the substation will face flooding of at least 1 foot of water or more, and by the end of the century, it will suffer chronic inundation experiencing floods at least 26 times per year. Crucial electricity infrastructure exposed to flooding could be damaged during such events. Transformers, for example, can explode when they flood. In case of a resulting fire, the risk is not just in the fire itself but also in the respiratory exposure to chemicals present in substations including sulfuric acid, transformer oil and dielectric fluid.
- Next to 8 million gallons of jet fuel. The community is especially concerned about the risk of fire given the proximity of the proposed substation to where 8 million gallons of jet fuel are stored.
- Across the street from the most popular playground in East Boston. The heavily visited American Legion Playground is just across the street from where the East Eagle substation would be located. The local community fears the substation will represent safety risks for the families that visit this playground.
- In a densely populated neighborhood that has historically been subjected to environmental injustices. East Boston is home for more than 40,000 people. Its population is 53% Latinx, and 17% of residents live below the poverty line. Over a hundred years of industrial use have left a burden of contamination in the soil, the water and air of East Boston. As this substation proposal stands, this community will have all of the risks; the benefits to the community are a lot harder to pin down.
New Alternatives for Providing Grid Services
The proposed substation in East Boston is an example of the critical decisions that utilities and other key actors in the energy sector are making now that could have implications long into the future. These decisions will either enable a transition to local clean energy or lock us in for decades to expensive, traditional, and centralized energy models.
Coal and other fossil fuels have been used for decades as key resources to generate electricity. Now, concerns associated with air and water pollution, global warming emissions, and the increasingly high comparative cost of coal generation have combined to focus our attention on renewable energy resources like solar and wind.
As a result, our electricity grid is going through a major transformation. As part of this transformation, utilities are being called to reassess old norms when considering investments in new infrastructure including generating plants, transmission lines, and substations.
Across the country, examples are popping up where thinking creatively in decentralized approaches is translating into savings for ratepayers, increased reliability, and enhanced resilience in the face of extreme weather conditions. In Southern California, for example, a $500 million gas peaker project was dropped in favor of a clean portfolio that will save ratepayers $125 million compared to the old one. In the Northeast, around 5,000 residential solar-plus-storage customers will supply 20 megawatts (MW) of capacity to ISO New England starting in 2022. And in New York, the Brooklyn Queens Demand Management program deferred a substation upgrade that would have cost $1 billion.
Given the risks associated with the proposed substation in East Boston and the potential for non-traditional alternatives (also called non-wires alternatives), UCS and GreenRoots set out to analyze what it would mean to take advantage of some of the local rooftop solar potential coupled with energy storage. In an accompanying blog post we walk through an analysis of one such alternative, and the implications of what we found.