COLUMN: Light commissioner offers winter energy overview

Jean-Jacques Yarmoff
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Energy reliability in the Northeast has been in the headlines, with talks about possible blackouts in our region. Some Marblehead residents have asked: 

  • Has our energy situation really become so bad? 
  • Is Marblehead Municipal Light Department (MMLD) really contemplating rolling blackouts this winter? 
  • What can we do to prepare if this is the case? 

What is going on?

We get our electricity from “the grid,” which brings electricity from the production facilities (run mainly on gas and oil) to our houses through the wires along our streets. ISO-New England oversees this system and has stated that it may have to take emergency actions if a severe, prolonged cold snap hits the region this winter. ISO-NE is publicly asking MMLD, and every entity that delivers power to customers, to plan for “load shedding,” the ability to quickly lower electricity consumption by 10 percent or more, as may be necessary to keep the grid stable.

We have experienced severe winters before, though, and they have never caused blackouts, so what has changed? 

The answer to that question is that local conditions have not changed. 

  • We can produce as much electricity in the region as last year.
  • The pipelines that bring in gas and oil have the same capacity as last year. 
  • Our electric consumption has not grown much.

But external factors, such as extreme weather events and the war in Europe, could put pressure on energy supplies. This is why ISO-NE is preparing more intensely for worst-case scenarios.

ISO-NE is taking into account extreme weather events, like the wet and windy storm that battered Marblehead Dec. 23, in planning for the region’s winter energy needs. COURTESY PHOTO/BRUCE DURKEE

First, ISO-NE is taking into account extreme weather events. Climate change is making weather more volatile and harder to predict, while stimulating more severe weather. For example, in February 2021, much of Texas lost power for five days in storm Uri, causing several deaths and over $10 billion in damages. The issues in Texas were caused by a lack of preparation of the utilities, which were unable to produce electricity under extreme cold conditions, and a market structure that amplified the issues. Our New England utilities are used to frigid conditions, and the capacity markets organized by ISO-NE provide safeguards that Texas did not have. But it is true that a period of very cold temperatures would stress – although not break – our production facilities. In the scenarios that the grid regulators are now using, more weight is placed on very extreme weather.

Second, the war in Europe is affecting our energy supplies. The war has caused fossil fuel prices to rise – impacting our own electricity price. Countries are scrambling for supplies of Liquid Natural Gas (LNG). Here in New England, if we had a prolonged period of very cold temperatures lasting a week or so, all the gas-burning and oil-burning generators would be working flat-out, and gas and oil supplies would need to be replenished. In normal situations, LNG tankers would supplement the gas pipeline supply, delivering their cargo into our ports. With the sabotage of the undersea gas pipelines in Europe and Russia’s halt of overland supplies, however, Europe has been importing all the LNG that can be found. So, it is not certain that, in an emergency, we would be able secure the same shipments we would have been able to get last year. 

While LNG is our first source of resupply, a second line of defense comes from oil. The oil-burning generators stock oil onsite. However, the high price of oil caused by the war is not inducing operators of oil-burning generators to keep large stocks because if there is no cold spell, this high-priced inventory would lose value. Filling the tanks to full capacity is an economic gamble: if they are not full now it could be hard to replenish stocks during a long cold spell, when everybody is suddenly rushing to buy oil.

ISO-NE is highlighting these issues to ensure better preparation by all for a worst-case scenario. We do not want to, and we will not, lose power for five days as Texas did

MMLD and Marblehead are prepared

Every year, MMLD receives alerts from ISO-NE about possible “load-shedding” orders. While we will know (and feel the cold!) in advance that an extreme situation is possible, if the order ever comes, we will have just a few minutes to react. We do not have, in Marblehead, a big manufacturing plant that could very quickly stop operations and lower overall electricity use. To respond to an order to drop electricity consumption, we will have to stop service to some residents. For most, this would only be an inconvenience that would last two to three hours in a small fraction of town. If the stress on the grid continues, a different town section might then not have power for another two to three hours. In the unlikely situation where we have to respond to an order, MMLD will alert the residents using the Code Red system.

What can you do to prepare?

Those who live in earthquake-prone areas are frequently encouraged to be ready for ”the big one” that might disrupt services. Authorities ask, “Are your flashlights ready? Do you have extra water?” In New England, we don’t have large earthquakes, but it is still a good idea to be prepared for emergencies. Everybody’s situation will be different, but working flashlights are a good start. 

Register to receive Code Red alerts. Register your phone number, enable texts and emails: you will not want to miss the alerts. You will find the Code Red registration logo at the bottom right of MMLD web site, or on the town website at

Learn your circuit number. In case of an emergency, MMLD will send a Code Red message specifying which circuits will be shut off. You will need to know the number of your circuit (look at your bill or call MMLD (781) 631-5600 to learn your circuit number).

If you depend on a life-saving medical device and do not have your own back-up system, please call MMLD to discuss how MMLD can help you prepare for emergencies.  

While a rolling blackout is a very unlikely event, it is best to prepare. Now is a good time to start.

Jean-Jacques Yarmoff is a member of the Marblehead Municipal Light Commission.

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