Sunshine is the best disinfectant for secrecy at New England Power Pool

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D. Maurice Kreis, NH Consumer Advocate

Power to the People is a column by D. Maurice Kreis, New Hampshire’s Consumer Advocate. Kreis and his staff of four represent the interests of residential utility customers before the NH Public Utilities Commission and elsewhere. It is co-published by Manchester Ink Link and InDepthNH.org.

By D. Maurice Kreis, Power to the People

Secret regional tribunals with the ability to drive billions of dollars in infrastructure investments, concerning a service that few people can live without, are something of a rarity here in New England. But I happen to be a member of such a body: the New England Power Pool, more commonly known as NEPOOL.

It all started innocently enough.  In the wake of the 1965 electricity blackout that plunged 30 million people in the northeast into darkness, New England’s electric utilities decided to improve their coordination to the point of having one control center in Holyoke, Massachusetts, run their bulk power transmission system for the entire region.  NEPOOL was created for this purpose.

Fast forward to the 1990s and the national craze to restructure the electric industry.  Every New England state but Vermont – and more than 15 other states around the country — decided to break up their electric utilities’ monopoly by forcing them to sell their generation assets and allow their customers to buy electricity from non-utility suppliers.

This required some help from the federal government.  Under the Federal Power Act, whose key provisions date from the Great Depression, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) oversees the bulk power transmission system and sets wholesale electricity rates.  To discharge these responsibilities, the FERC encouraged utilities in restructured states to form what eventually became known as regional transmission organizations (RTOs).

“Encouraged” is the key word here.  Skittish about being sued successfully by utilities unhappy about losing their autonomy and their monopolies, the FERC did not require the formation of RTOs. Ergo, the FERC was eager to make concessions to get utilities to agree to turn over their systems to these nonprofit and ostensibly independent regional organizations.

What emerged here in New England was an RTO known as ISO New England, which took over and eventually rebuilt the control center in Holyoke.  As with other RTOs, ISO New England would run the transmission grid, plan its future, assure access to the system for all generators, and oversee open and competitive markets for wholesale electricity.

NEPOOL survived this transition.  It became an advisory body to ISO New England, opening its membership to all stakeholders according to a byzantine set of FERC-approved governance and voting rules.  The Office of the Consumer Advocate is a voting member of the so-called end-user sector of the NEPOOL participants’ committee.

“Advisory body” is a bit of a misnomer here.  Yes, NEPOOL and its participants committee provide a lot of advice to ISO New England.  Recently, NEPOOL has been the locus of heated debate over whether to subsidize certain traditional generation facilities (particularly nuclear facilities and coal-fired plants) in the name of fuel security and limit the market participation of renewable generators that benefit from mandated utility purchases in Connecticut, Rhode Island and, especially Massachusetts.

But in the event ISO New England rejects the advice of NEPOOL, the so-called “jump ball” provisions of the RTO’s federally approved tariffs kick in.  In such a scenario, the proposals of both NEPOOL and ISO New England go before the FERC on an equal footing.

The practical effect of this “jump ball” mechanism is to give NEPOOL enormous power over how New England’s electricity grid is operated and planned.  No other region with an RTO has such a body.  Perhaps coincidentally, electric customers in New England pay – by far — the highest transmission rates in the nation.

In these circumstances, you do not have to be a former journalist like me to think that perhaps NEPOOL’s deliberations should be open to public scrutiny.  But as of now, NEPOOL meetings occur strictly behind closed doors.

Enter an upstart trade publication called RTO Insider, which bills itself as “your eyes and ears on the organized electric markets.” RTO Insider is keen on covering NEPOOL meetings and has managed to cause a proposal to allow such coverage to come before NEPOOL at its Tuesday, June 26 meeting.

Proponents of sunshine should not rejoice.  The proposal is highly unlikely to be adopted by NEPOOL, whose voting rules give the big generation companies and investor-owned utilities a dominant role.  And the proposal itself is not exactly a triumph for the First Amendment.

What NEPOOL is voting on Tuesday would allow journalists to attend NEPOOL meetings upon payment of $5,000 per year.  That’s certain to deter folks like Annie Ropeik and Sam Evans-Brown of New Hampshire Public Radio, David Brooks of the Concord Monitor, or Gary Rayno if IndepthNH.org — serious energy journalists who know why NEPOOL matters.  Even if their budgets allowed for such expenditures, journalism ethics generally preclude paying for access.

Different ethical standards tend to apply to the trade press in this and every other industry.  The economics are different too.  A year’s subscription to RTO Insider costs $1,350 – more if you want the deluxe version with unlimited access to the archives.

Oh – and did I mention that if the NEPOOL access proposal passes, and RTO Insider plunks down its 5 grand for access to the meetings, the publication would still have to ask the permission of any speakers it wishes to quote?  My journalism professors (I earned a masters degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism) are spinning in their graves at the ISO New England-specified rate of 60 cycles per second.

The argument against even this modest and ethically dubious effort to open up NEPOOL is the familiar secrecy pitch.  According to one argument that crossed my desk (which, by the way, I am quoting without permission), “the key question … is whether press attendance will reduce or possibly eliminate the willingness of NEPOOL participants to express their views in a candid way that encourages discussion and possible resolution of complex and important regional issues.”

Maybe candor is occasionally a casualty of accountability. But somehow the nation’s other six RTOs manage to make difficult policy choices without a secret governance body for stakeholders.

Sunshine is the best disinfectant.  So runs the famous transparency aphorism coined by Louis Brandeis, who fought against utilities on behalf of customers before becoming an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court in 1916.

A portrait of Justice Brandeis hangs in my office, and I could not look him in the eye if I failed to support even so flawed a transparency initiative as the one being voted on by the NEPOOL participants committee.  The initiative will almost certainly fail.  But the quest to drag NEPOOL, and the governance of New England’s electricity grid, into the sunshine will not end this week.

 

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