October 4, 2023
First major Massachusetts tax cut in over a decade: Top 5 Things You Need to Know
After months of negotiations, the Massachusetts state legislature has finally agreed to pass a tax package that provides…Read More
Posted on February 23, 2022
Boston Herald – Vaccinated people are no longer recommended to mask up indoors in Massachusetts unless they or a family member have a weakened immune system, the state Department of Public Health announced, citing “improvement” in coronavirus metrics.
“Recognizing that Massachusetts is a national leader in vaccine acceptance, and in light of recent improvements in COVID-19 indicators, DPH now advises that a fully vaccinated person should wear a mask or face covering when indoors (and not in your own home) if you have a weakened immune system, if you are at increased risk for severe disease because of your age or an underlying medical condition, or if someone in your household has a weakened immune system and is at increased risk for severe disease or is unvaccinated,” DPH said in a statement announcing the updated guidance on Tuesday.
Unvaccinated people should continue to mask up indoors “to help prevent spreading COVID-19,” the department continued.
Masks are still required for everyone in certain settings like public transportation and in health care facilities, per federal rules.
Boston Globe – Shelly Moss stopped Tuesday morning outside the Massachusetts House chamber, where her tour guide prepared to detail some of its history. It’s exactly what the Southlake, Texas, resident was hoping for on her trip to Boston: a window into the “historic importance” of the building.
Her tour was a bit of history itself, too. It was the first one given inside the building in nearly two years.
“I had no idea how special it was going to be,” Moss said with a laugh. “I guess we were the first ones brave enough to call.”
The Massachusetts State House reopened to the public on Tuesday, 708 days after legislative leaders closed its doors at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. In a building where officials go to great lengths to preserve history, the initial trickle of visitors found a still largely quiet capitol, with some notable changes.
WGBH – The chairs of the state legislature’s labor committee are trying to halt the state Department of Unemployment Assistance (DUA) from collecting on overpaid unemployment benefits.
DUA overpaid at least $2.7 billion on more than 719,000 unemployment claims in 2020 and 2021, according to an analysis of state filings with the U.S. Labor Department. That assessment was conducted by Rory MacAneney, an attorney with free legal-aid provider Community Legal Aid.
Sen. Patricia Jehlen and Rep. John Cutler addressed a letter to Labor and Workforce Development Secretary Rosalin Acosta, asking that “the Department of Unemployment Assistance pause collection for non-fault overpayments from residents until the end of July of 2022.”
The plea, sent Friday, said the pause would ensure legislators and “partners in Washington” have time to talk and see what went wrong, and find solutions to help the hundreds of thousands of residents impacted.
Jehlen said there’s a slew of reasons people could be flagged for overpayment, and she isn’t convinced all the people affected are fraudsters.
“People should not have to pay what little money they have for errors that were not their own fault,” she said. “We need a pause on collection so the department can catch up on the appeals that are pending, and we’ll learn what the actual impact is.”
Jehlen and Cutler suggested the pause include a direct notice to people in overpayment status that explains their account balance remains unchanged, but they’re under no obligation to pay until August. They pointed to the student loan payment pause put in place by the federal Department of Education during the pandemic, and the notices of that policy posted within people’s student loan account portals.
State House News – An appellate judge has ruled against Mayor Michelle Wu, indefinitely extending the court-ordered pause on enforcement of Boston’s employee COVID-19 vaccine mandate as public-safety unions further prevailed in a lawsuit against the city.
Massachusetts Appeals Court Association Justice Sabita Singh issued the order on Tuesday, overturning a lower-court judge’s decision to let Wu go ahead with disciplining city workers who didn’t get the shot.
“Given the limited harm to the city and the public health interest it seeks to promote, and the substantial harm likely to be sustained by the unions in the absence of an injunction, the balance of harms favors the issuance of an injunction to preserve the status quo, in view of the unions’ likelihood of success on the merits,” Singh wrote.
She added that “an injunction would avoid the risk of loss of essential public employees, a harm suffered by the unions and the public alike.”
Wu’s office said in a statement that city officials are “disappointed by today’s decision and are reviewing it carefully.”
“To protect communities and workplaces against COVID-19, courts across the country have repeatedly recognized the rights of state and local governments to require public employees to be vaccinated,” a Wu spokesman said. “More than 95 percent of the City’s workforce is vaccinated because of the policy we enacted. Our workers and residents who rely on city services deserve to be protected.”
This stems from a lawsuit filed by the International Fire Fighters Association Local 718, Boston Police Superior Officers Federation and Boston Police Detectives Benevolent Society against the mandate Wu announced in December. As the omicron variant surged, the mayor said that all municipal workers would need to get one shot of the vaccine by Jan. 15 or face discipline — up to firing.
State health officials on Tuesday reported the lowest single-day count of COVID-19 cases in more than three months as the once-surging omicron variant now appears to be on the way out.
COVID hospitalizations also continued to plummet, falling below 1,000 total patients for the first time in months as the variant wanes.
The 1,459 new cases reported on Tuesday was the lowest daily count since Nov. 9, before the holiday surge and omicron wave. The daily count was a 19% drop from the 1,792 daily cases reported last Tuesday.
The state’s positive test average has been plunging. It now stands at 3.09% after peaking at 23% in early January. The daily positive test rate for Tuesday’s report was 3.94%.
The state reported 90 new COVID deaths, bringing Massachusetts’ total recorded death toll to 22,974. The 90 deaths are from Saturday through Monday.
The seven-day average of deaths is now 37, which has been higher in recent weeks following the omicron hospitalization surge. The peak daily death average during last winter’s surge was 77 deaths.
There are now 882 COVID patients in the state, a daily decline of 142 patients. The count of 882 patients is a 73% drop from the peak of 3,306 patients on Jan. 14.
It’s the first time that the state’s hospitalization count dropped below 1,000 patients since Dec. 1.
Of the hospitalized COVID patients statewide, 44% of the patients were reported as being hospitalized due to COVID, and 56% of the patients were reported as testing positive for COVID while hospitalized for other reasons.
Commonwealth Magazine – With tax collections running nearly $1.5 billion ahead of expectations, Gov. Charlie Baker on Friday filed a bill that seeks to spend $1.6 billion in state funds to keep COVID-19 response efforts going and to invest in stressed sectors, like child care and human services.
The supplemental budget would allocate $2.4 billion total, but federal funding and reimbursements would reduce the state’s total to $1.6 billion, Baker’s office said. The bill includes $700 million dedicated to the COVID-19 public health response (rapid tests and surveillance testing in congregate care settings, maintaining vaccination sites, providing monoclonal antibody treatments, and more), $450 million to extend Commonwealth Cares for Children (C3) stabilization grants for child care providers through fiscal year 2023, $401 million worth of rate enhancements for human service providers, and $140 million for special education schools to address staffing needs.
“Massachusetts remains in a strong fiscal position, which enables us to use surplus Fiscal Year 2022 revenues to sustain our efforts to respond to COVID-19 and invest in areas like early education, human services, housing and more,” Baker said. “Thanks to our careful management of state finances in partnership with the Legislature and the resilience of our economy, revenues continue to exceed projections, making Massachusetts well-positioned to make these investments.”
Boston Business Journal – The Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program was a lifeline for millions of business owners — but thousands of the country’s smallest businesses may be facing forgiveness denials through no fault of their own.
That’s the charge from The Center for Responsible Lending and a coalition of 51 small business advocates in a letter they submitted to lawmakers in Congress and Biden Administration officials Thursday, which states that more than 400,000 microbusinesses that got PPP loans of $25,000 or less are being required to repay all or a portion of their loans.
“Navigating complex and ever-changing eligibility rules was challenging for all small businesses, but for microbusinesses, which are unlikely to have accountants or attorneys on staff and often lack the resources to access these professionals, it was overwhelming. For ‘non-employer firms’ (self-employed individuals, independent contractors, and sole proprietors with no employees other than the business owner), it was practically impossible,” according to the letter.
“As a result, despite applying in good faith under the rules as they understood them, being approved by SBA-approved lenders and by the SBA, and using the funds as Congress intended, many of these microbusinesses are being denied full forgiveness.”
Boston Herald – State budget watchdogs largely support Gov. Charlie Baker’s plan to give nearly $700 million in tax cuts to mostly low- and middle-income earners, but progressives warn the payback could backfire.
“The cost of just about everything is going up, and these tax breaks would help offset some of those costs for families,” the governor said last month, arguing the state is in a “very strong financial position.”
Baker is looking to raise the income threshold for when earnings become taxable, shielding the state’s lowest earners from taxation. He also wants to double tax credits for dependents and child care, double the allowable maximum for the senior property tax credit, increase the cap on deductions for rent payments from $3,000 to $5,000, cut the tax rate on short-term capital gains from 12% to 5%, and to double the threshold at which the estate tax kicks in to $2 million — and make only that excess value taxable rather than the whole amount.
But Baker will face an uphill battle with lawmakers who have historically nixed his prior attempts at tax relief. He’ll make his pitch to the Legislature at 1 p.m. Tuesday during a hearing before the Joint Committee on Revenue.
Watchdogs largely agree now is the right time for the type of tax relief the Republican governor is looking to provide.
WBUR – A record number of open meeting law complaints were filed with the state during 2021, according to Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey’s office.
The Democrat said her office received a record 406 complaints about possible violations of the law, meant to help the public gain access into the workings of government.
The office also issued a record 202 determination letters, and resolved a total of 350 complaints, according to a report released earlier this month.
The most frequently occurring violations in 2021 were: insufficiently specific meeting notices; failure to release meeting minutes; meetings not accessible to the public; and deliberations outside of a posted meeting.
The remedial actions most frequently ordered by the state Division of Open Government were: immediate and future compliance with the open meeting law; creation or approval of open session minutes; release or revision of executive session minutes, and attendance at a training on the open meeting law.
Commonwealth Magazine – The twenty-first century has seen significant growth in the “platform workforce:” workers who complete tasks via apps or platforms that allow them to control their own schedule. As of August 2021, 16 percent of Americans had performed platform work.
This new form of work raises a number of challenging issues for labor-market policy. Among them are how to ensure that platform workers have access to what have typically been employee benefits, such as health insurance, pensions, vacation time, and sick and family leave. These benefits are essential to protecting one’s health and financial security.
Creating a parallel model for benefits for platform workers is complicated. In the traditional labor market, employers provide these benefits to their full-time workers after some period of employment. But workers in the platform economy value the flexibility of choosing when, how much, and with which platforms they work each week. This raises a host of difficulties around applying the traditional benefits model. So how should we protect platform workers?
In an attempt to answer that question, I worked with Uber to carry out a survey of rideshare and food delivery workers, which gathered data on their work arrangements, income (from Uber and elsewhere), and existing benefits coverage. Respondents were also asked how they would value a suite of benefits – retirement savings contributions, health benefits, and paid sick and family leave – relative to cash. The results of this survey reveal some important lessons for how to design benefits for this large and growing population.
Boston Herald – Current law stipulates that tipped restaurant workers make a minimum of $6.15 before gratuities – less than half of the statewide minimum wage. The national organization One Fair Wage has launched a $1 million campaign to change that by 2026.
“These employers are telling us they cannot do it alone,” said Saru Jayaraman, president of One Fair Wage. “They need policy to both create a level playing field and lift all boats, but also to signal to the thousands of workers this is going to be permanent. It is worth coming back to work in restaurants.”
The group has committed $1 million each to 25 states for this effort in states including Massachusetts, Illinois and New York, and for both ballot initiatives and legislative routes.
Not everyone is supportive, though.
Bob Luz, president of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association, said in a statement that restaurant workers’ current situation “has allowed the highest percentage of employees to earn the highest average wage,” he said. “Most wait staff employees would not trade places with their hourly compensated co-workers, because they would be taking a pay cut.”
Several proponents of the initiative noted that servers’ roles have changed significantly during the pandemic, leading many to quit their jobs.
“(It’s) frankly an impossible requirement of workers to be public health marshals on the same people from whom they were trying to get tips to make up their base wages,” Jayaraman said.
WGBH – Election workers’ long days and low pay — often below minimum wage — are making it difficult for municipal clerks to find people willing to take the jobs in the pandemic. Ahead of spring town elections and the state primaries in the fall, some hope to draw in more workers by increasing their stipends.
Though the pay and hours have long been tough, particularly with only being called on a few days out of the year for elections, recruitment problems were exacerbated in the pandemic for those who might worry about being indoors with voters all day.
“I think they deserve a raise because they show up at 6 o’clock in the morning, they go home at 9 o’clock at night, you know, that’s a long day,” said Beverly City Clerk Lisa Kent. “The busy elections, you don’t have time to sit down or know your name. … They’re just good workers and they really deserved it a long time ago.”
Many election workers are retirees, which has put an extra strain on local elections during the pandemic because they are older and more vulnerable to infection, making some of them more reluctant to work the polls in the pandemic, said Geoff Beckwith, executive director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association.
“Communities need to stand up very complex operations,” Beckwith said, “usually hiring scores and scores of one-day volunteers. The reason why I call them volunteers is the pay generally has been extremely low. And almost all are retired and are doing this as an extension of their community service, really.”
WHDH – The Baker administration is hopeful that an application change set to take effect this summer will help more MassHealth recipients access food-assistance benefits, targeting a gap that has affected hundreds of thousands of residents.
Amid a steady increase in households served by public benefit programs, residents applying online to enroll in MassHealth starting this July will be able to indicate they also want to be considered for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, Department of Transitional Assistance Commissioner Amy Kershaw told lawmakers on Tuesday.
That change, Kershaw said, will allow anyone seeking to join the state’s combined Medicaid and Children’s Health Insurance Program to simultaneously have “information in their application for MassHealth to be transmitted to DTA to be considered the start or initiation of an application for SNAP.”
Kershaw said the changes will build on other work over the past year, including a pilot program the state launched alongside Boston Medical Center to offer a common application and expanded outreach to MassHealth members, to ensure that eligible low-income families are not leaving food assistance benefits on the table.
Boston Globe – Pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly & Co. will establish a $700 million Lilly Institute for Genetic Medicine at 15 Necco St., an under-construction 12-story lab and office building fronting the Fort Point Channel.
It’s a major expansion into Boston for Indianapolis-based Lilly, which is one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies and has a market capitalization of nearly $230 billion.
Eli Lilly has a 47,000-square-foot outpost at 450 Kendall St. in Kendall Square, where it employs about 100 people. The Boston lab and office expansion follows Lilly’s acquisition of New York-based gene therapy firm Prevail Therapeutics in 2020. Lilly expects to move into the Necco Street site by 2024, and grow from 120 to 250 research biologists, chemists, data scientists, and others within five years.
“Establishing the Lilly Institute for Genetic Medicine will allow us to pair cutting-edge technologies with our deep biological expertise in several areas including neuroscience and diabetes,” said Andrew C. Adams, vice president of genetic medicine at Lilly and co-director of the Institute, in a statement. “Lilly will focus on medicines acting at the nucleic acid level to advance an entirely new class that target the root cause of diseases, an approach that is fundamentally different than medicines available today.”
The team at the Boston site will partner with researchers in New York, where Lilly expects to grow to 200 scientists, Lilly said.
The Necco Street site will also include a shared biotech space, modeled after Lilly’s Gateway Labs in San Francisco. That flexible lab space creates “opportunities for collaboration” with Lilly scientists and could house an additional 150 new jobs, the company said.
The median price for a typical apartment in Greater Boston last year was $2,700, according to the site — the sixth highest in the country. Only Miami, San Jose, San Diego, Los Angeles and San Francisco beat out the region.
Rents in Greater Boston rose only slightly last year, even as they skyrocketed 19% nationwide.
But the high cost and constant turnover make it hard to find an apartment in the Boston area, said Justin Giuliano, an agent with Commonwealth Standard Realty, who mostly handles properties in Allston, Brighton and Brookline.
“As far as professionals coming back to the city in earnest [they] are needing to make decisions very quickly,” he said.
Realtor.com’s data compared rents in December 2020 to December 2021 in the 50 largest metro areas in the U.S. It included apartments with two-bedrooms or fewer.
Experts say many factors are responsible for the rent increases, including a nationwide shortage of housing.
Rising rents are also an increasing driver of high inflation in the U.S. Analysts expect rents to continue to rise this year, but at a slower pace, thanks to increased construction.
The Hill – Dozens of federal actions dealing with everything from energy efficiency standards to funding for transit projects have been upended by a recent court ruling against the Biden administration’s climate-change calculations.
The administration said in a court filing this weekend that nearly 40 agency rules will have to be postponed or reworked after a federal court restricted its ability to measure their climate impacts.
Earlier this month, Judge James Cain, a Trump appointee in Louisiana, preliminarily blocked the administration from using the “social cost of greenhouse gas” values it had instated to help quantify the climate benefits or consequences of federal actions.
The White House last year temporarily returned to Obama-era figures for calculating the costs of the planet-warming gases, which gave much greater value to climate damages than those used under the Trump administration.
For the past several months, these figures had provided a uniform measure by which the federal government has accounted for the climate impacts of its actions.
Commonwealth Magazine – As Massachusetts seeks to transition away from fossil fuels and achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, what to do with the state’s existing natural gas infrastructure is becoming a major point of contention.
At a hearing Tuesday of the Senate Committee on Global Warming and Climate Change, several senators pressed Energy and Environment Secretary Kathleen Theoharides on why the Baker administration’s recent building code proposal doesn’t allow communities to experiment with banning fossil fuel infrastructure for heating and cooking in new construction.
Theoharides said the proposal would update two existing building codes and create a new third one. None of the codes would ban fossil fuel infrastructure in new buildings but they would be structured in a way to make it cost effective for builders to embrace electrification.
“What we’ve done through the code is make the case for electrification really strong based on the cost,” she said.
The existing building codes — a base code and a stretch code — would be updated to put downward pressure on greenhouse gas emissions in new buildings. The new opt-in net zero specialized stretch code would require new homes or commercial buildings using gas to achieve greater energy efficiency and also mount solar on the roof and pre-wire the building for electrification.
Theoharides said the administration’s proposal seeks to strike a balance between energy efficiency and cost. She said she opposes an outright ban on fossil fuel infrastructure in new construction even in individual communities that want to do so because such bans could hinder housing construction and because they could leave a smaller pool of customers carrying the financial load for the remaining natural gas system.
Commonwealth Magazine – The Baker Administration released a first-of-its-kind projection on Tuesday indicating the state is on track for now in meeting its climate-change goals, but the governor’s top energy aide said challenges loom ahead that may require the state to embrace some form of cap-and-invest system like the Transportation Climate Initiative the governor abandoned late last year.
As part of its effort to reach net zero emissions by 2050, the state is legally required to meet certain interim targets for reducing emissions in intervening years. The challenge for policymakers is that it often takes two to three years after a target date to determine if the target has been met, which means the state could go badly off track and not even know it.
At a hearing of the Senate Committee on Global Warming and Climate Change on Tuesday, Kathleen Theoharides, the governor’s secretary of energy and environmental affairs, said an internal projection indicates the state surpassed its target for 2020. The target was to reduce emissions 25 percent below 1990 levels, but the Baker administration estimated the state came in 28.6 percent below 1990 levels.
“This is not necessarily cause for celebration — 2020 was an abnormal year,” Theoharides said.
COVID-19 slowed the economy considerably in 2020. Vehicle miles traveled in Massachusetts that year totaled 148 million, nearly 30 million miles less than in 2019. Theoharides said heating and cooling days were also down in 2020.
Wall Street Journal – The U.S. electrical system is becoming less dependable. The problem is likely to get worse before it gets better.
Large, sustained outages have occurred with increasing frequency in the U.S. over the past two decades, according to a Wall Street Journal review of federal data. In 2000, there were fewer than two dozen major disruptions, the data shows. In 2020, the number surpassed 180.
Utility customers on average experienced just over eight hours of power interruptions in 2020, more than double the amount in 2013, when the government began tracking outage lengths. The data doesn’t include 2021, but those numbers are certain to follow the trend after a freak freeze in Texas, a major hurricane in New Orleans, wildfires in California and a heat wave in the Pacific Northwest left millions in the dark for days.
The U.S. power system is faltering just as millions of Americans are becoming more dependent on it—not just to light their homes, but increasingly to work remotely, charge their phones and cars, and cook their food—as more modern conveniences become electrified.
At the same time, the grid is undergoing the largest transformation in its history. In many parts of the U.S., utilities are no longer the dominant producers of electricity following the creation of a patchwork of regional wholesale markets in which suppliers compete to build power plants and sell their output at the lowest price. Within the past decade, natural gas-fired plants began displacing pricier coal-fired and nuclear generators as fracking unlocked cheap gas supplies. Since then, wind and solar technologies have become increasingly cost-competitive and now rival coal, nuclear and, in some places, gas-fired plants.
Regulators in many parts of the country are attempting to further speed the build-out of renewable energy in response to concerns about climate change. A number of states have enacted mandates to eliminate carbon emissions from the grid in the coming decades, and the Biden administration has set a goal to do so by 2035.
The pace of change, hastened by market forces and long-term efforts to reduce carbon emissions, has raised concerns that power plants will retire more quickly than they can be replaced, creating new strain on the grid at a time when other factors are converging to weaken it.
One big factor is age. Much of the transmission system, which carries high-voltage electricity over long distances, was constructed just after World War II, with some lines built well before that. The distribution system, the network of smaller wires that takes electricity to homes and businesses, is also decades old, and accounts for the majority of outages.
Severe storms like Hurricane Ida, last year, have contributed to the growing number of large power outages in the U.S. Photos: Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg News
A report last year by the American Society of Civil Engineers found that 70% of transmission and distribution lines are well into the second half of their expected 50-year lifespans. Utilities across the country are ramping up spending on line maintenance and upgrades. Still, the ASCE report anticipates that by 2029, the U.S. will face a gap of about $200 billion in funding to strengthen the grid and meet renewable energy goals.
Another factor is the changing climate. Historically unusual weather patterns are placing great stress on the electric system in many parts of the U.S., leading to outages.
Weather-related problems have driven much of the increase in large outages shown in federal data, topping 100 in 2020 for the first time since 2011. Scientists have tied some of the weather patterns, such as California’s prolonged drought and wildfires and the severity of floods and storms throughout the country, to climate change. They project that such events will likely increase in years to come. Unlike electric systems in Europe, distribution and transmission lines in the U.S. were typically built overhead instead of buried underground, which makes them more vulnerable to high winds and other weather.
Those weather extremes are raising the costs of power network upgrades for utilities all over the country. That in turn is set to raise power bills for homeowners and businesses.
Public Service Enterprise Group Inc., which serves 2.3 million electric customers in New Jersey, plans to invest as much as $16 billion in transmission and distribution improvements over the next five years to replace aging equipment and make the grid more resilient to extreme weather events, such as a highly unusual spate of tornadoes that swept the state last year.
Ralph Izzo, PSEG’s chief executive, said the plan is critical to ensuring reliability, especially as customers become more dependent on the grid to charge electric vehicles and replace traditional furnaces and gas appliances with electric alternatives. The movement toward electrification is in part driven by consumers, amid mounting concerns about climate change, as well as initiatives among cities and towns to enact mandates aimed at phasing out natural gas for cooking and heating.
“That resiliency needs to be further enhanced, because the solutions to climate change are going to put more challenges on the grid,” Mr. Izzo said. “Those are the kinds of things that really keep you awake at night.”
The historic shift to new sources of energy has created another challenge. A decade ago, coal, nuclear and gas-fired power plants—which can produce power around the clock or fire up when needed—supplied the bulk of the nation’s electricity. Since then, wind and solar farms, whose output depends on weather and time of day, have become some of the most substantial sources of power in the U.S., second only to natural gas.
Grid operators around the country have recently raised concerns that the intermittence of some electricity sources is making it harder for them to balance supply and demand, and could result in more shortages. When demand threatens to exceed supply, as it has during severe hot and cold spells in Texas and California in recent years, grid operators may call on utilities to initiate rolling blackouts, or brief intentional outages over a region to spread the pain among everyone and prevent the wider grid from a total failure.
Companies around the country are rapidly adding large-scale batteries to store more intermittent power so it can be discharged during peak periods after the sun falls and wind dies. But because such storage technology is somewhat new, and was, until recently, relatively expensive, it remains a small fraction of the electricity market, and grid operators agree much more will be needed to keep the system stable as more conventional power plants retire.
The problem could soon threaten New York City. The New York Independent System Operator, or NYISO, which oversees the state’s power grid, last month warned of possible supply shortages in the coming years as several gas-fired power plants close or operate less frequently in light of stricter state air quality rules. New York, which has set a goal to eliminate emissions from its electricity supplies by 2040 and no longer has any coal-fired power plants, also recently shut down a nuclear plant some 30 miles north of Manhattan after critics for years called it a safety hazard.
NYISO said its reserve margins—how much electricity it has available beyond expected demand—are shrinking, increasing the risk of outages. A 98-degree, sustained heat wave could result in shortfalls within New York City as soon as next year, a circumstance that would likely force NYISO to call for rolling blackouts for the first time ever.
“We already foresee razor-thin margins,” said Zach Smith, NYISO’s vice president of system and resource planning. “The risk is compounded when we take into consideration unforeseen events.”
New York is adding substantial amounts of new wind and solar generation, as well as battery storage, and NYISO has said that it is critical that the projects remain on track to improve the stability of the system in the coming years. Already, wind and solar developers across the country are facing headwinds related to supply-chain issues, inflation and the amount of time it often takes to get approval to connect to the grid.
The North American Electric Reliability Corp., a nonprofit overseen by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission that develops standards for utilities and power producers, warned in a report last month that the Midwest and West also face risks of supply shortages in the coming years as more conventional power plants retire.
Within the footprint of the Midcontinent Independent System Operator, or MISO, which oversees a large regional grid spanning from Louisiana to Manitoba, Canada, coal- and gas-fired power plants supplying more than 13 gigawatts of power are expected to close by 2024 as a result of economic pressures, as well as efforts by some utilities to shift more quickly to renewables to address climate change. Meanwhile, only 8 gigawatts of replacement supplies are under development in the area. Unless more is done to close the gap, MISO could see a capacity shortfall, NERC said. MISO said it is aware of this potential discrepancy but declined to comment on the reasons for it.
Curt Morgan, CEO of Vistra Corp. , which operates the nation’s largest fleet of competitive power plants selling wholesale electricity, said he is worried about reliability risks in New York, New England and other markets as state and federal policy makers pursue ambitious goals to quickly phase out fossil fuel-fired power plants. His concern is that the plants will retire before replacements such as wind, solar and battery storage come online, he said, given the cost and challenge of quickly building nough batteries to have meaningful supply reserves.
“Everything is tied to having electricity, and yet we’re not focusing on the reliability of the grid. That’s absurd, and that’s frightening,” he said. “There’s such an emotional drive to get where we want to get on climate change, which I understand, but we can’t throw out the idea of having a reliable grid.”
Serious electricity supply constraints have historically been rare. Most recently, the Texas grid operator called for sweeping outages during an unusually strong winter storm last February that caused power plants and natural gas facilities of all kinds to fail in subfreezing temperatures. Millions of people were in the dark for days, and more than 200 died.
California, which experienced outages during a West-wide heat wave in the summer of 2020, also called on residents to conserve power several times last summer amid a historic drought that constrained hydroelectric power generation across the region. The state is now racing to secure large amounts of renewable energy and batteries in the coming years to account for the closure of several conventional power plants, as well as potential constraints on power imported from other states when temperatures rise.
California state Sen. Bill Dodd, Democrat from Napa, recently introduced legislation that would require the state’s electricity providers to offer programs that compensate large industrial power users for quickly reducing electricity use when supplies are tight, helping to ease strain on the grid.
“We just can’t go down the road of having rolling blackouts again,” Mr. Dodd said. “People expect their government to keep the lights on, and our reliability situation in California still isn’t where it needs to be.”
Similar challenges have emerged elsewhere in the West. PNM Resources Inc., a utility that provides electricity for more than 525,000 customers in New Mexico, has warned that it would likely have to resort to rolling blackouts this coming summer, following the June retirement of a large coal-fired power plant. It has recently proposed keeping one of the generating units online for an extra three months to help meet demand during the hottest months of the year.
Tom Fallgren, PNM’s vice president of generation, said the company faced significant delays in getting regulatory approval for several solar projects to replace the coal plant’s output, as well as construction delays tied to supply-chain issues. A spokeswoman for the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission said the agency does its best to address all utility proposals in a fair and timely manner.
Mr. Fallgren said he anticipates even steeper challenges in the coming years as the company works to replace output from a nuclear plant with a combination of renewable energy and battery storage.
“We used to do resource planning on a spreadsheet. It used to be very simple,” he said. “The math is just astronomically more complicated today.”
One of the biggest challenges facing grid operators and utility companies is the need for better technology that can store large amounts of electricity and discharge it over days, to account for longer weather events that affect wind and solar output. Most large-scale batteries currently use lithium-ion technology, and can discharge for about four hours at most.
Power delivery in the U.S. relies on an aging patchwork of hundreds of thousands of miles of high-voltage transmission lines that carry electricity to local distribution networks. More than half of the power supply is managed by independent regional organizations.
Form Energy Inc., a company that is working to develop iron-air batteries as a multiday alternative to lithium-ion, recently announced plans to work with Georgia Power, a utility owned by Southern Co., to develop a battery capable of supplying as many as 15 megawatts of electricity for 100 hours. It would be a significant demonstration of the technology, which the company is aiming to broadly commercialize by 2025.
Form Energy CEO Mateo Jaramillo said the U.S. has ample capability to produce power, but increasingly finds itself short on electricity during periods of high demand and low production as the generation mix changes.
“That’s sort of a feature of this new grid that we find ourselves with today,” he said.
Other outage risks are mounting as extreme weather events test the strength of the grid itself. A spate of strong storms in Michigan last summer left hundreds of thousands of residents in the dark for days as utility companies rushed to make repairs. DTE Energy Co. , a utility with 2.2 million electricity customers in southeastern Michigan, had more than 100,000 customers lose power.
CEO Jerry Norcia called the storm barrage unprecedented, and said the company needed to invest more heavily in reliability. DTE now plans to spend an additional $90 million to keep trees away from power lines and is working to hire more people to help maintain its system. But it may take time for such utility improvements to fully materialize, and meanwhile, consumers may suffer further inconveniences.