On the evening of Tuesday, January 11, New England’s grid provided key insights on what cold snaps amid a forced energy transition look like—stagnant windmills and burning oil for electricity.

ISO New England, the region’s grid operator, utilized oil capacity to provide for 17 percent of the region’s electricity needs as temperatures dropped well below freezing. Because of high natural gas prices, and scant availability of the region’s renewable capacity, the most economical move for the region was to bring oil and coal fired capacity online to power the grid.

Additionally, a large portion of the renewable capacity that was online on Tuesday wasn’t exactly the green utopian vision that the energy transition movement has envisioned. Of the 7 percent of overall capacity that came from non-hydro renewables, 29 percent was from burning trash, with an additional 23 percent came from burning wood. So, in this instance, less than four percent of the grid was powered by wind and solar.

These states have struggled to actualize their bold climate goals in recent years. For example, this fall Maine voters rejected a measure to build transmission lines through the state to bring Canadian hydropower to the Massachusetts market. A similar proposal to route the capacity through New Hampshire had already failed. The inability to garner public support for these proposals is a serious detriment to state and regional efforts to decarbonize.

New England States also participate in a program called the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) which works as a cap and trade arrangement whereby carbon emissions allotments are auctioned off and traded among emitting companies in the participating states. The goal of the program is to gradually reduce the greenhouse gas emissions of member states over time.

During the early years of the program, the caps were essentially non-binding because they were set above the emissions levels of the member states. Now that the program is in its later stages, it faces compliance challenges and costs. It also must address fluctuating membership as states enter and leave the program based on the politics of their state governments, as is the case with Pennsylvania, a state that left the program, but is now considering reentry into the program.

Grid capacity allocations like that of Tuesday night show that although states might have lofty goals when it comes to emissions reductions, when temperatures fall and demand rises, these notions are quickly abandoned for whatever will fill demand at the lowest marginal cost.

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