New England is seeing the highest electric prices in the country and faces the threat of rolling blackouts because of a severe shortage of natural gas pipeline capacity – a problem that is proving controversial and difficult to solve, according to a recent article by WGBH.

Beyond its record high electric rates, “New England is in the midst of an energy crisis,” WGBH wrote. “It’s facing serious questions about the future of its energy supply. If the region cannot get a grip on its electricity usage and supply, residents and businesses are facing a future that may include ‘rolling blackouts’ on days when usage is the highest,” the article states.

A solution is elusive. ISO-New England, which manages the region’s electric grid, has been calling for increased natural gas capacity, while environmentalists and clean energy advocates have argued against more natural gas pipelines. They say the region can shift its supply to renewables like hydroelectricity, solar and wind and curb its demand for natural gas.

WGBH reports that natural gas was marketed as cleaner, cheaper energy for a decade. “Thousands of businesses and homeowners made the switch — especially after an underground ocean of natural gas was discovered in Pennsylvania, and controversial techniques like fracking increased output. Natural gas went from supplying less than a fifth of New England’s power to one-half in just over a decade. As the region’s reliance on natural gas increased, a big problem became more and more apparent,” the article states.

“There isn’t enough pipe to carry the gas from where it’s produced into New England,” Gordon van Welie, President of ISO New England, told WGBH. “He says the problem is there are only three pipelines to bring natural gas into New England from the south and west. Space in those pipelines began to run out on high-demand days. Consequently the price of natural gas in the region went up — and that’s why beginning in January, some Massachusetts residential customers will pay about $33 a month more for electricity. The number of people seeing bigger electric bills may grow as more utilities file for rate increases.”

“We’re more vulnerable because of the energy balance in the region is so much more constrained than what it has ever been before,” van Welie said.

Van Welie told WGBH that the problem just gets worse with every nuclear, coal or oil plant that closes, because it leaves too few power plants generating electricity. “He says if the Salem natural gas plant isn’t built by 2016, projections show greater Boston isn’t guaranteed to have enough electricity on peak demand days. There are many steps ISO-New England can take if that actually happens — but in extreme cases operators may have to rely on rolling blackouts as a last resort,” the article states.

Van Welie told WGBH New England can’t circumvent the crisis in time by adding green technology like wind-generated electricity because it would take too long to build the necessary infrastructure. “That’s why the New England governors supported a plan to build a new natural gas pipeline into the region, one that would meet increasing demand, as well as fuel new, gas-fired plants like the one planned in Salem. But environmentalists like Peter Shattuck of the Acadia Center say it isn’t necessary, and new pipelines ultimately make the problem worse,” the article states.

“If blackouts happen, it’s because we’ve allowed ourselves to become reliant on natural gas,” Shattuck told WGBH. “So I think the important thing is to start pursuing the cure, instead of looking for that additional fix, for just one more fix of natural gas that maybe delays a little bit into the next decade when we have to get serious about kicking the habit.”

To read the WGBH article, click here.

To view WGBH’s presentation Why Are Natural Gas Prices So High? click here.