Saturday, August 23, 2014

Extraordinary Machine* - ISO New England

I had the opportunity early this summer to take a week-long course from the folks at ISO New England (ISO-NE) on Wholesale Electricity Markets.  ISO-NE is the regional organization that is essentially responsible for keeping the lights on in New England. ISO stands for Independent System Operator. This is the organization that coordinates the generation and transmission of electricity in New England through a variety of regulated and free market mechanisms.

In previous blogs, What’s It All About, Alfie? and Wind in the Wires, I discussed the structure of the utility industry and particularly the electrical utility industry. There are three aspects to the electrical utility business, as shown in the figure below: there is the generation of power, typically at a large power plant located in a central location, then there is the transmission of electricity over long distances from the generation point to towns and cities, and, finally, there is the distribution of electricity through the community via the sub-stations, transformers, and wires to individual homes and businesses. 

ISO-NE is the organization that coordinates the generation and transmission aspects of the electricity business. It is your local electrical utility, such as PSNH, Unitil, or Liberty Utilities, that is responsible for the distribution step, which involves drawing the electricity from the transmission lines and getting it to your home and place of work. ISO-NE is not reading your individual electrical meter - that is also the task of your local electrical distribution company. It is important to note that ISO-NE does not own or operate generation plants or transmission lines. Instead, through a variety of market mechanisms, it is responsible for the coordination of generation and supply by a host of generation and transmission companies.

This turns out to be an extraordinarily complicated task because electricity cannot be stored (or very little of it) and so there needs to be a consumer for every electron of electricity produced by a power generation plant at every minute of the day. When you increase your demand for electricity by turning on your laptop or tablet to read this blog, someone needs to ensure that generating companies are supplying just the right amount of electricity to do so: that is what ISO-NE does.

ISO-NE operates the electrical grid in the six New England states of New Hampshire, Vermont, Maine, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut and has three primary responsibilities:
  1. Operating the Power System: ISO-NE ensures the correct balance between electricity supply and demand every minute of the day by centrally coordinating the generation and transmission of electricity in the New England region and into (and from) other neighboring regions, if necessary.
  2. Supervising Wholesale Electricity Markets: ISO-NE provides and supervises the market platforms on which wholesale electricity is bought and sold.
  3. Power System Planning: ISO-NE assures that present and future electricity needs are meet through the development of reliable generation and transmission systems.
In the days before electrical deregulation, electrical utilities, such as Public Service of New Hampshire (PSNH), were given a monopoly to provide electrical service to large regions. As such, the utility was responsible for the generation, transmission, and distribution of electricity across the region. This was done largely through operating its own generation plants, running the electricity through its own transmission lines, and supplying it to its own customers through its own distribution network. However, as noted in Shall I Stay, or Should I Go?, this model has changed as consumers have demanded choice and competition. We have been swept up in the deregulation wave that has worked to unbundle the electrical industry and break it up into separate generation, transmission, and generation companies, and to allow competition in each of these areas. Although deregulation has had varying levels of success, it soon became clear that this environment required a single controlling entity to coordinate open access electricity supply, transmission, and use across all a range of independent and competitive regional companies and regulated utilities, hence the need of an Independent System Operator such as ISO-NE. 

The seeds for ISO-NE were sown in the 1965 Northeast blackout that affected some 30 million people in Ontario and large parts of New England, New York, and New Jersey. This blackout was caused by a single poorly set relay at a New York power plant that created a series of cascading electrical surges, tripped relays, and imbalances that moved through the electrical grid and shut down generation plants. In the aftermath of the blackout, several reliability councils were set up to improve coordination between electrical utilities. One of the organizations formed in 1971 was New England Power Pool (NEPOOL), which was a trade organization of New England power companies. The focus of their work was to improve cooperation and coordination among the regional power utilities. In the process, they organized much of the NE electrical grid and established a central electricity dispatch organization.

For almost three decades, NEPOOL was responsible for the coordination of the NE electrical grid, but, in the 1990s, with the advent of deregulation, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) – the Federal “godfather” of the electricity business – decided that deregulation required open access to the electrical grid by independent power companies and well-run competitive markets. FERC concluded that this was best done under the auspices of an independent organization, rather than a trade organization of existing participants which may not be open to increased competition. ISO-NE is one of several regional organizations that were established in 1997 to monitor deregulation, establish open and competitive wholesale markets, as well as coordinate and operate the regional electrical grid. Essentially ISO-NE assumed some of the functions that had been carried out by NEPOOL. In 2005, FERC provided ISO-NE with greater authority and independence over the transmission grid and designated it as the six-state Regional Transmission Organization or RTO. The map below shows the location of other ISOs or RTO in North America.

Today, ISO-NE is responsible for over $10 billion of wholesale electricity transactions from 400 market participants. It is a private, non-profit organization with operations located in Western Massachusetts. It has about 550 employees, most of whom are power system engineers, computer scientists, and economists. ISO-NE does not have trucks and power line crews that go out repair the grid. That is the responsibility of the transmission and distribution companies. The ISO-NE folks do not get their hands dirty: it is a coordinating, monitoring, and planning body for the electrical grid.
Here are some key facts about ISO-NE:
  •    Serves 14 million residents with 6.5 million meters across six NE states;
  •    Coordinates 32,000 MW of generating capacity;
  •    Coordinates 350 generators;
  •    Covers 8400 miles of high voltage transmission lines;
  •    Highest peak demand for electricity ever recorded is 28,130 MW;
  •    Peak load in 2013 was 27,379 MW;
  •    Generation of electricity in 2013 was 129,336,000 MWh;
  •    Average Day Ahead Wholesale Price in 2013: $ 54.42/MWh (= 5.4 cents/kWh);
  •    $8 billion in transactions from electricity sales in 2013;
  •    2013 operating expenses: $157 million.

ISO-NE Control Room (Photo Courtesy of ISO-NE)

ISO-NE has created several markets, the most important of which is the wholesale market for buying and selling electricity and which accounts for the bulk of ISO-NE transactions. Another important and growing function is the capacity market, which is a forward market in which bidders commit generation capacity that will meet the electricity needs in the future. For example, a new start-up power plant can auction off its generation capacity to supply electricity in three years’ time. Of course, if this future capacity is bought, the start-up is obligated to deliver that generating capability in three years. This market provides an additional revenue stream for power plants, it allows capacity planning at least three years out, and it provides incentives for the construction of new power plants.

As a result of my research, I now have a much better understanding of ISO-NE and their function. My most important takeaway, however, was that I was simply stunned at the engineering and economic complexity involved in getting electricity from generators, moving it across transmission lines, and getting it to users in a complex deregulated market. As I noted earlier, ISO-NE folks do not get their hands dirty repairing transformers and power lines but they have built and are responsible for a very complex machine. A useful way of understanding this machine is to view it, as other authors have, as a mechanism responsible for controlling three types of flows, as in the figure below.  It is responsible for the flow of information about generation, transmission, and demand, which leads to transparent market operations and both short- and long-term planning for the electrical grid. It is also responsible for the coordination and flow of electricity from generators to users across transmissions lines. Finally, through its market mechanisms, it is the conduit for money flows from buyers of electricity or generation capacity to sellers.

I am very impressed with this machine and now understand more completely the need for an organization like ISO-NE. We often hear grumbling in NH that we export a great deal of the electricity we produce. That is true, but only up to a point. It is important to understand that NH is not an “electrical island” responsible for its own generation and use of electricity. That is old school “PSNH will take care of everything for New Hampshire” thinking. We now live in a time of deregulated (or partially deregulated) markets. The State of New Hampshire is part of the New England grid and, along with our neighbors, we generate, transmit, and use electricity. Largely due to the Seabrook Nuclear Plant in Portsmouth, we presently generate more than we use so other NE users benefit from NH generation capacity, but, should there be an interruption of supply from Seabrook, we will be very grateful that we are indeed part of the NE grid. Likewise, access to the NE markets allows us to participate in long-term planning and in large wholesale electricity markets whose structure and competitive nature work to keep wholesale electricity prices down.

There is, of course, a cost associated with a controlling body such as ISO-NE. The 2013 operating expense for ISO-NE was $157 million, which we as rate payers end up paying for. If we divide the costs of ISO by the electricity produced in 2013, this yields a figure of about 0.11 c/kWh. For an average household using 800 KWh per month, the ISO-related costs turn out to be about a dollar per month. From my perspective, that is cheap insurance for a reliable electrical supply and efficient markets.

Until next time, remember to turn off the lights when you leave the room—and when you do so, think about the extraordinary machine* that adjusts to that small reduction in electrical demand. It is indeed remarkable.

Mike Mooiman
Franklin Pierce University

(*Extraordinary Machine – A cool little old timey tune by the extraordinarily talented Fiona Apple. Here is a performance from the Today Show. Enjoy.)