Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Electricity supply recovering from cut in natural gas flow

Portland Press Herald

One official says the call to conserve power shows the state's vulnerability.

By TUX TURKEL, Staff Writer
December 4, 2007

Backup power plants were bringing the state's electricity supply
to adequate levels Monday, two days after problems on an
offshore natural gas platform cut the flow to a pipeline that fuels
Maine power generators.

Repairs are expected to be made by midweek, officials said, at
which time gas supply to the state should return to normal.

The malfunction set off a series of events that forced New
England's grid operator to call for conservation measures
Saturday and Sunday in Maine, and for some factories to curtail
unnecessary energy use.

Customers who heat with natural gas weren't affected, officials
said, and lighter-than-normal weekend power demand
eliminated the need for stricter action.

The incident underscores Maine's and New England's reliance on
natural gas for electricity generation and highlights weak links in
the supply system, said Kurt Adams, chairman of the Maine
Public Utilities Commission.

"One piece of equipment breaks and it leads to cascading
events," Adams said. "The natural gas system in New England is
just not that robust. The system shouldn't be this vulnerable."

Adams and other state officials want Maine to use more
renewable resources, such as wind and hydro power, from both
here and Atlantic Canada.

A representative of the natural gas industry, however, said the
event showed that the region can handle a supply interruption,
and that a liquefied natural gas terminal being built in New
Brunswick will improve the situation greatly next year.

Adams and ISO New England, the power grid operator, said
confidentiality agreements with generators and energy
companies limit some of what they can say about the supply
interruption. But interviews with the pipeline operator and gas
industry officials outline the following series of events:

The problem stems from equipment failure on the Thebaud
platform off Nova Scotia, the hub of natural gas activity in the
Sable Island fields. The Sable Offshore Energy Project, which
began operating in 1999, extracts and processes gas and sends
it across Atlantic Canada and New England through the
Maritimes & Northeast Pipeline.

The section of pipeline north of Westbrook typically carries more
than 400 million cubic feet of natural gas a day. The equipment
problem shut off all that supply from Sable, according to Marylee
Hanley, a Maritimes & Northeast spokeswoman. As of Monday,
the system was moving only 155 million cubic feet a day from
western Canada via the Portland Natural Gas Transmission
System pipeline, which connects with the Maritimes line in

Maine has five gas-fired power plants. Two of them, a 520-
megawatt unit in Veazie and a 174-megawatt unit in Bucksport,
are connected to the Maritimes line. Adams declined to
specifically identify those plants as the ones affected by the
supply problem, but he and other officials said two Maine
generators that were scheduled to run Saturday had no fuel and
were forced to shut down.

The capacity shortage led ISO New England to ask Saturday and
Sunday that Mainers cut unnecessary electricity use. The grid
operator also used power from outside New England, and called
in voluntary agreements with Maine factories and mills that can
cut power use briefly in emergencies.

By Monday, additional power plants had been brought on line.
The system was expected to hit a peak demand of 20,720
megawatts Monday, said Ellen Foley, a spokeswoman for ISO
New England. That's short of the record winter demand recorded
in 2004.

"We have a cushion available this evening and expect to be in
good shape the rest of the week," she said.

Workers, meanwhile, had removed the broken platform
equipment and were taking it to shore Monday for repair, said
Tom Kiley, a spokesman for the Northeast Gas Association.
Repairs were expected to be made by today and the platform
returned to full service by midweek, he said.

The incident, Kiley said, shows that the region has adequate gas
and electrical reserves to weather a supply interruption.

"It appears the loss of that supply didn't have a significant
impact on power generation or service to gas customers," Kiley

Adams had a different view.

New England's dependence on natural gas has increased over
the past decade or so, as nuclear power and oil generation
became less appealing. Gas generates about 40 percent of the
region's electricity, and nearly half of Maine's power. That
represents a doubling of gas-fired generation since 1999.

"Natural gas dependency continues to challenge the region,"
Adams said.

A lesson from the weekend incident, he said, is that Maine needs
to diversify its energy supply. Maine has the opportunity to
receive thousands of megawatts of capacity from wind-power
projects and other renewable sources here and in Atlantic
Canada over the next decade, he said.

One factor will improve Maine's access to gas in the meantime: a
large LNG terminal is under construction in Saint John, New

The terminal is expected to double the amount of gas flowing
through the Maritimes line. The joint venture between Irving Oil
and the Spanish firm Repsol YPF at Irving's Canaport facility is
expected to open late next year. Maritimes is spending $320
million to expand its system, including new compressor stations
in Maine.

Two LNG proposals also are on the horizon Down East, though
opposition and regulatory hurdles make their fates uncertain.

Staff Writer Tux Turkel can be contacted at 791-6462 or at:


Copyright © 2007 Blethen Maine Newspapers

No comments: