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Page added on December 28, 2014

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Where Our Power Comes From

Where Our Power Comes From thumbnail

Flip the switch and the light comes on. Plug in your smart phone to charge. Put your slice of bread in the toaster and a minute later it pops up nicely browned.

Where does the electricity come from that makes our lives so easy?

Let’s take a look.

Across New England there are more than 350 power-generating facilities. These are places making electricity from a variety of fuels, including Natural Gas, Nuclear, Renewables, moving water, Coal, and Oil.

To give you an idea of how the different types of fuel fit together in the picture: on a day this month – December 3rd – 45% of the region’s energy was coming from natural gas, 37% from nuclear, 11% from renewables, 6% from Hydro, and 1% from coal.

These percentages demonstrate a significant shift in the region’s preferred fuel source, with the last ten-to-fifteen years seeing a dramatic increase in dependence on natural gas. In 2000 roughly 15% of New England’s electricity was created from natural gas – in 2013 it was up to 46%.

That’s a big leap.

In fact, demand for natural gas now has risen so high that it’s outstripped the pipeline capacity, which is the big reason that electric power costs are projected to rise substantially this winter – the generation facilities need more natural gas than we can fit through the pipes, particularly the pipelines coming in from New York and Pennsylvania.

It’s also important to know that while most of the electricity we use is generated here in New England, some of it is imported.  In 2013, about 14% was brought in from outside the region, with the largest portion of that coming from Canada.

(Part 2: The Grid)

All this electricity gets to your home or business through the power grid. This is the transmission network of power lines and transformers and substations.

What the grid can’t do is store energy. It’s not like a battery that can hold a charge until you need it. The grid passes energy from generators to consumers pretty much in real time. Which means it has to be continually managed – and managed very carefully. When demand rises, more energy needs to be fed into the grid. When demand drops, energy in the grid needs to be reduced.

And demand changes day and night, hour by hour – depending on many factors. When it’s hot, demand rises as many people turn on air conditioners. When it’s late at night demand falls as most people turn out lights and appliances and go to bed.

So what kind of mastermind can predict and track these continuous fluctuations? Turns out, there is a public interstate agency whose job is to do just that. It’s called ISO New England. That’s the Independent System Operator.

You can think of the ISO as an air traffic controller for New England’s energy grid. They are impartial about fuel type, they don’t own the transmission cables or the power plants, and they don’t sell the electricity. Their key mission is to monitor the power grid and tell power plants to turn on when demand rises, and to shut down when demand falls.

Their biggest monitoring station is in Holyoke Massachusetts, but there are six smaller control centers around the region.

(Part 3: The Utilities)

For the South Coast, Cape Cod, and the Islands, two utility companies deliver all our electricity: National Grid and NStar. They own most of the hardware that makes up the transmission network – all those power lines and transformers and substations.

No matter who you buy electricity from – and you can buy it from an independent, often smaller power supplier, like Cape Light Compact – that electricity still comes to you over the wires owned and maintained by your utility company. If you check your electric bill, you’ll see that a portion of the cost you pay each month is a “transmission fee.” That’s because you’re not only paying for the electricity that use, but you’re paying for the upkeep of the power grid.

And if the power grid is running the way it should, the only thing you have to think about when your toast pops up is: what kind of jam to put on it.

9 Comments on "Where Our Power Comes From"

  1. Kenz300 on Sun, 28th Dec 2014 9:07 am 

    Solar and wind continue to drop in price every year and are suppling more new generating capacity than fossil fuels.


    Solar and Wind Provide 70 Percent of New US Generating Capacity in November 2014

  2. paulo1 on Sun, 28th Dec 2014 9:29 am 

    If TPTB get serious about energy issues they could always put people on meters to control supply like they do in UK. Cold? Too complacent to put on a sweater? Why, just feed in a fiver.

  3. Kenz300 on Sun, 28th Dec 2014 9:33 am 

    Climate Change is real…. we can deal with the cause or we will deal with the impact.

    Pope Francis’s edict on climate change will anger deniers and US churches | World news | The Guardian

  4. Go Speed Racer on Sun, 28th Dec 2014 10:41 am 

    liking that part where a toaster is considered equal to a phone charger. The toaster draws 1500 Watts, the charger draws 5 Watts. 5 = 1500, but only in corn-syrup America.

  5. Joe Clarkson on Sun, 28th Dec 2014 11:04 am 

    Speed Racer,

    It is true that the power demand for a toaster is 300 times that of the phone charger, but look at energy consumption: 5 W X 8 hours = 40 Whr for the charger, 1500 W X 0.08 hour = 120 Whr. The toaster uses only three times the energy of the phone charger on a daily basis. If the phone charger were left on all day, its power consumption would equal the toaster’s.

    Those of us who live off-grid must be especially vigilant for tiny loads that are on all the time. My microwave has an LED clock. If I left my microwave plugged in, as do most people, the clock would use more energy on an annual basis than the energy used by the microwave for heating food.

  6. CAM on Sun, 28th Dec 2014 12:29 pm 

    He should clearly state that he is talking only about the regions production of electricity, not the regions total energy usage. Very misleading.

  7. Apneaman on Sun, 28th Dec 2014 1:14 pm 

    What percentage of electricity do solar and wind provide?

    Don’t you need a healthy and well maintained grid to get the power to the customers?

  8. GregT on Sun, 28th Dec 2014 1:24 pm 

    Electric power generation is a byproduct of fossil fuels usage. As are all of the gadgets that we power with that electricity, and the grid that we distribute the electricity with.

    It is fossil fuels that have given us the ability to generate, store, use, and distribute electricity. We are so addicted to ‘energy’ that we are unable to see the forest through the trees.

  9. Kenz00 on Tue, 30th Dec 2014 9:32 am 

    The transition to safer, cleaner and cheaper alternative energy sources continues to grow around the world.


    Dizzying Renewable Energy Price Declines Can Help States Meet Ambitious Carbon Targets Under The EPA’s Clean Power Plan

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