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On the Hot Seat

He keeps energy flowing, but worries about the future

Gordon van Welie, chief executive, ISO New England. Gordon van Welie, chief executive, ISO New England. (Suzanne Kreiter/ Globe Staff)
By Erin Ailworth
Globe Staff / November 28, 2010

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Every time you flick on the lights or grab a cold drink from the fridge, you can think of Gordon van Welie, chief executive of ISO New England, the nonprofit that oversees the power grid. It’s his job to keep electricity flowing throughout New England.

Van Welie recently spoke with Globe reporter Erin Ailworth about the challenges of running the grid — a task that could become more difficult as the region’s older oil-fired power plants begin to age out of the system.

Explain what ISO is responsible for, in terms of running the power grid.

First thing you have to do is mentally separate the grid into two levels. You’ve got the bulk power system, which is what we’re operating, and that’s the transmission system plus all the [electricity] generators connected to the transmission system. And you’ve got the distribution system [operated by utility companies that deliver power to customers].

So how do you manage the demand for electricity and the possibility of outages?

The rule that we operate under is that if something big breaks, we have to be able to get back to our reserves within 30 minutes. And so what you are always trying to do is stay at least two steps away from a blackout — when you are managing a system, to not ever allow yourself to get into the position where you are going to lose total control.

Once you are deep into that emergency operating procedure, one of the last steps you’ll take is to start doing what I referred to as load shedding or rolling blackouts. That’s the scary step. Operators actually work very hard to avoid getting there. They have to deal with the situation as they see it unfolding. There’s no time for them to run around finding management and saying, “Can I do this? Can I do that?’’ They have all the training they need; they know what they’ve got to do under the circumstances and they’ll do it. If they have to sacrifice a small amount of load or cut off a few customers in order to keep the rest of the region online, they will.

What you want to avoid is what happened in 2003, where the operator loses control of the system and automatic devices take over and shut down the whole system in order to protect it. Then you have what’s called a cascading blackout. It’s like dominoes falling over.

What do you think about adding wind, solar, and other renewable sources to the grid?

It’s a good thing. I think what you’re doing is further strengthening the power system, you’re bringing online another source of electrical energy into New England. It’s diversifying our fuel supply. We’ve become heavily dependent on natural gas in recent years. Actually, the two major sources of electricity are natural gas and nuclear power in New England. Oil used to be a big player in New England, but it’s gradually diminished in usage. [And] there’s a bit of coal on the system.

Speaking of coal, there are several power plants in the area that are nearing retirement age — something that you’ve called a looming concern. Can you talk about that.

We have about 8,000 megawatts of generation that was built in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s. Some of it is coal but most of it is oil, and the troubling thing is that . . . I think the economic case to continue to upgrade them to meet these new environmental recommendations is going to be very difficult. So what we are worried about from a reliability standpoint is seeing a large portion of these retire. What we can’t predict is how quickly this is going to evolve.

Can you put the 8,000 megawatts in perspective to the amount of power we use?

It’s roughly a quarter of the capacity that we need in New England . . . [and] the thing I am worried about is will we be able to get the transmission fixes in place to deal with the retirements as they come.

So what needs to happen?

They [aging plants] are critical points on the power system, so in order to keep the system reliable — if they were to shut down — you’ve got to do something. There has either got to be something else built in their place or you’ve got to build a transmission line able to displace that unit. What would it look like if you were to shut it down and replace it with natural gas-fired generation, and what would it look like if you were to shut it down and replace it with wind generation?

What do you think will happen?

I think what our future holds is more renewable resources on our system — a lot more. And those will tend to be less predictable than conventional resources . . . Solar and wind, for example, are determined by the weather and so you can’t predict from one day to the next, maybe one week to the next, whether you are going to get the electricity generation that you were counting on. How do you make all this work? You make it work through automation. You’re going to have all of these devices and all of those renewable resources monitored through control rooms . . . and we’re going to build software that will maintain the reliability of the system and keep things in balance.

Gordon van Welie,
Chief executive,
ISO New England