Ratepayers Stage a Ballroom Coup

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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

Ten years ago, federal regulators decided to buy into a big batch of blarney dished up to them by the industry insiders who tend to dominate the conversation about how to run New England’s electricity grid.  Billions and billions of dollars are at stake – every penny of which ultimately comes from the wallets of electricity customers – to say nothing of the health and safety of both people and the planet.

In 2012, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission rebuffed suggestions to give ratepayers a truly meaningful voice in the governance of the region’s grid operator, ISO New England.  Instead, FERC caved to industry pressure and approved something known as the Consumer Liaison Group (CLG).

The CLG plays no substantive role at ISO New England or its powerful stakeholder body, known as NEPOOL.  Nope – the CLG is a coffee klatch, meeting four times a year in some hotel ballroom or another around the region.  There’s usually a panel discussion about some item of current events in the energy realm, a briefing by one of the ISO New England vice presidents, maybe a keynote speech from some luminary, and ‘free’ food.

‘Free’ deserves the proverbial air quotes because, as everyone knows, there is no such thing as a free lunch.  Catering services at CLG meetings are ultimately paid for by the region’s electricity customers – all of them.

On November 30, the CLG held its most recent quarterly meeting at the Colonnade Hotel near the Prudential Center in Boston.  There was plenty of food, as usual.  Vice President Anne George of ISO New England showed her powerpoint slides, as is customary.  There were not one but two keynote addresses – not unprecedented.

But this was no ordinary CLG meeting.

This time, the ballroom was packed – and not just with the usual suspects.  Grassroots activists from all six New England states showed up in droves, having gotten wind of the fact that on November 30 the CLG’s Coordinating Council – the group that runs the CLG – was holding its biannual election.

Six of the activists stood for election, and all six were elected.  Two longtime incumbents (the senior vice president Associated Industries of Massachusetts and a retired former energy manager for Harvard University) were ousted. 

Given that the Coordinating Council is a body of 12 people, the fact that half of them will now be grassroots activists pursuing a climate and social change agenda is no small thing.  It will now be much harder for ISO New England to keep the CLG from getting feisty.

And what better time than now?  Electricity rates are soaring, thanks to over-reliance on natural gas as the fuel of choice as well as a sweetheart deal the regulators approved to guarantee the region’s largest generator, Mystic Station north of Boston, a healthy income stream.

The activist elected from New Hampshire is Rev. Kendra Ford of Portsmouth.  A Unitarian-Universalist minister, Ford showed up in her clerical collar and her campaign statement said she ran to address two problems:  “social inequity and climate change.”

“As a minister, I am asked to care for what is broken in our world and call us all back to our moral centers,” declared Ford.  “I have worked closely with many agencies which help people who struggle to keep their homes, have enough food and pay their energy bills.

“I want these people to have a voice in the halls where decisions are made to be able to heal their lives and their communities by being part of the choices that affect their daily lives,” she added.  “I would like to continue to press the ISO to lead on [a] just energy transition.”

Also joining the CLG Coordinating Council are two ecologists – Sonja Birthisel of Maine and Nathan Phillips of Massachusetts – political scientist Regine Spector of the University of Massachusetts, Vermont farmer Jacob Powsner, and Connecticut’s Ian McDonald, member of a group called “No More Dirty Power in Killingly.”

Full disclosure:  Among the reelected incumbents was yours truly, along with representatives of the official ratepayer advocates in Connecticut, Maine, and Massachusetts.  A few weeks ago, I appeared at a public meeting of the ISO New England board of directors to argue that the CLG should be abolished altogether.

Why?  Because in the secretive and highly technical realm of the region’s electricity grid, the CLG operates as a fig leaf rather than as a vehicle for exerting actual ratepayer influence on how our bulk power system is built and managed.

Maybe – just maybe – the advent of those six activists on the committee that oversees the CLG will make a difference.  The CLG still won’t have any real power but it can and should serve as a platform for spreading the word about how the rules and practices of our electricity markets are jiggered to protect the big transmission line owners and generation companies.

This latest meeting of the CLG also featured speeches from two rock stars of the electricity world – FERC Commissioner James Danly and ISO New England’s board chair Cheryl LaFleur, herself a former FERC Commissioner who (like Danly) briefly chaired the agency.

They also got an earful from the dozens of activists in the ballroom. 

Danly – a lawyer and decorated war veteran, appointed to FERC by President Trump — began his talk by breezily recalling when he lived in New England and everything about the grid was “perfect” because “the electricity worked and I never thought about it.”

Now, Danly said, we’ve reached the point where the price of liquified natural gas (LNG), delivered by boat to Mystic Station – is experiencing “convergence” with LNG prices in Europe.  Given that the U.S. is a major producer of natural gas, “that should chill people.”

Though Danly professed to be “absolutely agnostic as to what states should do” about choosing among generation technologies – left under federal law for states to decide – he unambiguously called for the development of additional natural gas pipeline capacity.

Anthropologist David Hughes, one of the activists in the room, was having none of it.  When Danly took questions, Hughes admonished the FERC commissioner that the electricity grid was never “perfect” – because, Hughes said, using fossil fuels to produce electricity has been “undercutting human and non-human life.”

“You can’t just punt to legislators and other people,” Hughes said.  “You have a role here which you articulated personally.”

Danly characterized the question from Hughes as rhetorically “deft” and then moved on.  But, as a result of the CLG election on November 30, those questions are not going away.  Meanwhile, electricity prices in New England continue to soar.

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