Book Report: Solla Sollew and Shorting the Grid

Print More

Power to the People is a column by Donald M. 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.

By DONALD M. KREIS, Power to the People

Dr. Seuss – or, rather, the decision of his literary executors to stop printing new copies of certain of his works – have been much in the news lately.  That got me to thinking about my favorite Dr. Seuss book.

Though some Dr. Seuss stories may seem racially or culturally insensitive to current readers, and others are so famous their characters remain omnipresent in the culture, as a ratepayer advocate I find that the seussical sector of my brain always seems to turn to a somewhat more obscure example of the Theodore Seuss Geisel oevre: I Had Trouble in Getting to Solla Sollew.

In this 1965 kid-lit epic, the protagonist resolves to shed his everyday troubles by hitching a ride with a passing stranger to the mythical metropolis of Solla Sollew – where, the traveler assures him, “they never have troubles – at least very few.”

Our gullible hero buys this sales job and quite the journey ensues.  Among other things: He ends up carrying the animal that was supposed to pull the two travelers.  He’s conscripted into an army.  He confronts the Perilous Poozers of Pompelmoose Pass.  (They’re nasty.)  He survives a terrible storm known as a “Midwinter Jicker.”  And, no, he never makes it to Solla Sollew.

Instead, the protagonist returns home, all the wiser.  Specifically:

“I learned there are troubles

Of more than one kind.

Some come from ahead

And some come from behind.

“But I’ve bought a big bat.

I’m all ready you see.

Now more troubles are going

To have troubles with me!”

If you’ve never read this classic story, so worthy of comparison to Homer’s Odyssey or Melville’s Moby-Dick, by all means do so.  But I have an even better idea, especially if you care about electricity, electric reliability, and electric rates.

Much as Dr. Seuss seems to have been arguing that self-help is preferable to questing after distant and inexpicable panaceas, so too does a recently published book, Shorting the Grid, make much the same point about the eternal quest for safe and reliable electricity at the lowest possible cost, at least when pursued via the regional grid operator ISO New England.

The author of Shorting the Grid is Meredith Angwin, a retired chemist and former project manager at the Electric Power Research Institute.  Based in nearby Wilder, Vermont, Angwin is a longtime fan of nuclear power.  She gained some notoriety in her home state by blogging and campaigning, persistently but unsuccessfully, to stop what proved to be the early retirement in 2014 of the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant.

Much like the troubles that launched the Solla Sollew protagonist on his journey, Angwin’s zest for nuclear power inspired her to become active in the Consumer Liaison Group (CLG) of ISO New England.  The CLG is basically a glorified coffee klatch, sponsored by ISO New England as a means of fending off more substantive public participation in its affairs.

Angwin was not satisfied with CLG happy talk and free food.  Though not an expert in the transmission grid or the wholesale markets that are ISO New Englands’ reason for being, she started taking notes and doing research.  And her journey led her straight into the electric grid equivalent of Pompelmoose Pass.

“In my opinion, a grid meltdown is coming,” Angwin writes.  “Reliable power will become part of the Good Old Days that parents tell their children about.”

In an effort to back up such a dire warning with fact, Angwin pulls off a literary miracle.  She actually explains, in plain terms, how a federally regulated regional transmission organization like ISO New England works and how it is governed to cater to the interests of industry insiders. 

Yeah, I know you don’t care what a MOPR (“minimum offer price rule”) or CASPR (“competitive auctions with sponsored policy resources”) are.  You are likely indifferent to the fact that the NEPOOL Participants Committee has, in certain circumstances, the right to make what is known as a “jump ball” filing with the federal regulators.  Why bother knowing that NEPOOL is the so-called “stakeholder advisory” body to ISO New England, and that NEPOOL insists upon the right to meet behind closed doors?  Heck, they might as well be the Perilous Poozers.

Well, Angwin goes into these things, and more, making them not just accessible but seemingly urgent.  I know how difficult it is to do this because I have tried.

Here, according to Angwin, are the troubles in getting to safe and affordable electricity via ISO New England:  convoluted regulation, too much deference to insiders, too much reliance on natural gas generation (in the absence of adequate pipelines), too much extra cost passed on to ratepayers, nobody really in charge of keeping the grid working, and the ease with which states can pursue expensive energy policy and use the regional grid to pass costs on to neighboring states.

Exactly.  Although I have a few quibbles with Angwin.

“My preference would be for a grid with nuclear plants running at baseload,” she writes, pointing out that nukes are relatively cheap to operate, can run almost without stopping, and don’t emit much if any carbon.  Okay, but that seems to assume existing nukes (e.g., Seabrook) will run forever.  New nuclear plants are ridiculously expensive to build, a reality Angwin overlooks.

In my view, the whole idea of “baseload” is as dated as those discontinued Dr. Seuss books.  Today we don’t need generators that always run as much as we need a well-managed grid that can optimize resources that are more intermittent (wind turbines on land and at sea, solar panels on rooftops and at utility scale, hydro facilities both near and far, and even demand response from customers).

More importantly, unlike the hero in Solla Sollew Angwin does not end up taking up a bat and proclaiming “now my troubles are going to have troubles with me.”  She should.

“When I went to a luxurious breakfast meeting of NEPOOL, I was painfully aware that I was not considered a stakeholder of the grid,” Angwin sighs.  Stakeholders buy memberships in NEPOOL.  Mere ratepayers are not stakeholders.  I felt more like a serf than a customer.”

Well, unlike Angwin my office did buy a NEPOOL membership.  That’s not enough.  Angwin doesn’t argue for it – she merely points out that we need to do something — but here’s the bat we need to take the troubles into our own hands:  a fully funded organization to represent ratepayer interests at ISO New England and NEPOOL.

At the end of Solla Sollew there is a lovely drawing of a hirsute bat-wielding creature, the unnamed main character of the story, bearing a grin that somehow manages to look both fiendish and earnest.  That’s precisely the spirit, also summoned by Angwin’s book, that we need if we are to force needed change at ISO New England.

Comments are closed.