ISO New England’s Johnson Says Grid Faces ‘Tremendous Change’

Issues & Policies

The New England power system will undergo tremendous change over the next few decades.

At CBIA’s June 2 Energy & Environment Conference in Rocky Hill, ISO New England director of external affairs Eric Johnson gave an overview of where the system stands now, the dramatic changes facing the industry, and the organization’s role.

ISO New England’s Eric Johnson speaking at CBIA’s June 3 Energy & Environment Conference.

Johnson laid out the three roles ISO New England performs to ensure reliable electricity at competitive prices.

The first is grid operation, which Johnson compared to that of air traffic control. 

Johnson said ISO New England makes sure “supply and demand are kept in perfect balance minute-to-minute on our system.”

The second is market administration, where the organization designs, runs, and oversees the markets where wholesale electricity is bought and sold.

The third is power system planning. This requires ISO New England to study, plan, and analyze the power system to make sure the region’s electricity needs will be met over the next 10 years.

Energy Shifts

That planning role includes ensuring the system is fully operational and preparing for transitions in energy sources.

The most significant shift is the move from coal and oil to natural gas and renewable energy.

In 2000, coal and oil made up 40% of electric energy production, while natural gas and renewable energy made up 27%.

Dramatic Changes in Energy Mix
Source: ISO New England.

Fast forward 20 years, and coal and oil “has almost completely fallen off the chart” to 0.7%, Johnson noted, while natural gas and renewable energy made up 65% of electric energy production.

Though renewable energy has experienced more modest growth than natural gas over that period, Johnson said many states are still setting targets to ramp up renewable energy use.

“This has not changed substantially since 2000,” he said, “but it’s going to have to change to meet the policy goals set by the states.”

Emissions Reductions

This transition has resulted in significant emissions reductions since 2010.

According to an ISO New England report, carbon dioxide emissions have fallen 41%, nitrogen oxide by 58%, and sulfur dioxide dropped 98%.

“By and large the long-term trend is for decarbonization of the region,” Johnson said.

Major Emissions Reductions
Source: ISO New England.

“For a number of years, the demand for electricity has been essentially flat because of the heavy investment in energy efficiency and solar.”

But due to changes in transportation, electric vehicles, and heating, ISO New England forecasts electricity use at nearly 10 times the amount it is today in a decade.

And when looking at solar use, the growth in solar photovoltaic resources will go from 40 MW in 2010 to a projected 11,520 MW in 2031.

Balancing Energy Sources

However, as solar power is utilized more frequently, electricity demand will be driven down during the day, Johnson said.

In fact, on sunny days electricity use will be higher at 3 am than at 3 pm, with solar power meeting daytime energy needs.

Nighttime Electricity Demand on the Rise
Source: ISO New England.

While wind, solar, and electricity use will increase, Johnson cautioned against focusing on those three sources alone.

“We’re going to need some type of balancing capability to make this work,” he said.

To fill in the gaps, ISO New England has gas generation that can be adjusted throughout the day to make up for the lack of solar energy once the sun goes down.


However, Johnson pointed to a study evaluating the future of the power grid, and laid out four potential pathways to help the New England region decarbonize:

  1. net carbon pricing, which would impose a price on carbon emissions;
  2. a forward clean energy market, which creates incentives for businesses to generate clean energy;
  3. a hybrid model of net carbon pricing and a forward clean energy market;
  4. or the status quo, which assumes states will continue on their path to clean energy without providing additional incentives.

Johnson concluded by stating that progress has been made, but the work is not over.

“Everybody understands that the status quo is not the ideal,” he said. “We have seen significant shifts, we’ve seen emissions come down. 

“But this is also a matter for the states and New England stakeholders to have further conversations.”


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