The Outlook for U.S East Coast Power Supplies: Turmoil in Virginia; Tight Supplies in New York City and New England

Data Center Power

Looking at power availability as one goes up the I-95 corridor from Richmond, Virginia to Boston, Massachusetts there are some issues worth examining if one is thinking of situating a datacenter these days.

The region from Virginia to Maine has three distinct power grids – each with its own wholesale market. The PJM (so-called ‘mid-Atlantic’) grid actually encompasses markets from Virginia to New Jersey and as far west as Illinois, but we will focus on the East Coast. Then there are the New York and New England grids.

Datacenters vs Dominion

Starting in Virginia, let’s have a quick look at the dust-up occurring there specifically between some of the very largest datacenter players and the local distribution utility, Dominion. This is a pretty big deal: It’s estimated that over 70% of the world’s Internet traffic flows through the datacenter hub in Northern Virginia. [1] Dominion has been pushing to build a $7bn in 600-mile gas pipeline to meet increased demand, and in particular citing the needs of new datacenter infrastructure.

The data and cloud companies don’t want to be tarred with that brush, especially as they have worked so hard to be associated with renewable energy power purchase agreements both in the U.S. and globally. So they are pushing back pretty hard. In May, ten cloud companies including the likes of Apple and Salesforce [2] delivered a letter to Dominion opposing its resource plan and gas pipeline. Instead, they requested that the utility to invest in more renewables and energy storage to supply their growing needs. At the same time, the pipeline is snarled op in environmental adjudication, whose outcome will likely take some time to play out in the courts.

Looking OK in the rest of PJM

In the remainder of PJM, a recent mild winter has resulted in a significant decline in power prices from the same period last year (a 39% drop). [3] In general, there are sufficient generating resources in the PJM system, despite numerous coal plant retirements. Costs of power supply should remain a non-issue for the near term. Overall, there are no real red flags in costs or adequacy of supply from Richmond to Newark, though it’s not the cheapest place to buy power. One could buy the same stuff for fraction of the price in the Nordics, owing largely to the wires and poles costs, which vastly outweigh wholesale prices.

New York City looking for a way forward

Cross the Hudson River into New York, and the power story is quite different than it is in PJM. Upstate is fine. There’s plenty of generation, including hydropower and lots of new wind energy, and few transmission constraints. However, within the greater New York City environs, power availability is tight. The City consumes roughly 60% of the state’s electricity, while it only generates about 40% within the same area. [4] That imbalance is about to get worse, with the planned retirements of the 2,000 MW Indian Point nuclear units that feed into the city from just 25 miles up the Hudson River. [5] Those will be phased out by 2020/21. Planners are rapidly moving to respond to that challenge, but it won’t be easy to build out the necessary infrastructure in such a heavily-populated region. As a consequence, they are leaning heavily on efficiency, tighter building codes, and demand response (payments to consume less during periods of peak usage).

While New England crosses its fingers

Further to the north, New England’s margin of error is pretty thin as well. There are two gas pipelines supplying the region, which are not enough at times. But with determined opposition, there won’t be a third one built anytime soon. The grid manager’s biggest fear is a string of bitterly cold days, such as those experienced in early 2018, when gas-fired generators compete for limited gas supply with homeowners struggling to stay warm.

Oil has been stockpiled in recent years as a back-up, but supplies have been limited. At a March 2019 presentation to the New England Restructuring Roundtable, North American Electric Reliability Corporation President James Robb indicated the region had come within one cold day of depleting its back-up oil supply during the brutal 2017/2018 cold snap. An additional frigid day could have meant brownouts or blackouts.

Additional resources for the region are being planned, including a controversial 1,000 MW power import transmission line from Hydro-Quebec as well as 1,600 MW of offshore wind. But neither will come online for a few years.

Some areas looking OK, but NYC and New England merit scrutiny

In summary, the East Coast power situation is quite varied. The Dominion and cloud provider kerfuffle may drag on for some time, as the fate of the pipeline is adjudicated. The rest of PJM looks pretty good. New York is headed into a tougher supply situation as nuclear plant Indian Point soon goes dark, a situation that may require some belt tightening. Meanwhile, New England evaluates options and hopes for mild weather.


[2] The total list included Adobe, Akamai Technologies, Apple, AWS, Equinix, Iron Mountain, LinkedIn, Microsoft, QTS, and Salesforce.




Written by Peter Kelly-Detwiler (Guest)

See Peter Kelly-Detwiler (Guest)'s blog

Peter is co-founder of NorthBridge Energy Partners and has more than 25 years experience in the international energy industry. You can follow Peter at: @PKayDee

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