Total Eclipse of the ISO New England Consumer Liaison Group?

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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

Nathan Phillips is an ecologist, a professor in the department of earth and environment at Boston University, and an earnest advocate for what he calls a “resilient, climate-beneficial, democratic grid.”  As the April 8 solar eclipse approached, he noticed a public consciousness raising opportunity.

Phillips realized that a solar eclipse, particularly one that would be total across a swath of northern New England, would affect the region’s electric grid bigtime by curtailing the output of solar panels.  The eclipse began during the 2:00 hour – a time at which, on gloriously sunny days, the wholesale price of power often drops below zero because solar electricity is so abundant.

It puzzled the professor that the region’s not-for-profit grid operator, ISO New England, was not using the eclipse – and the drastic effect it would have on midafternoon power supply – as an opportunity to raise awareness of the impact energy conservation can have at times when unusual events stress the bulk power transmission system.  So Phillips issued his own public service announcement on April 8, entitled “2024:  Eclipse: a Teachable Moment for Community Conservation.”

At that point, all hell broke loose.

Phillips took two steps the powers that be did not like.  First, his public service announcement identified himself and his five co-signers as members of the coordinating committee of the ISO New England Consumer Liaison Group (CLG).

Not coincidentally, the guilty six – Phillips along with Ian McDonald of Connecticut, Sonja Birthisel from Maine, Regine Spector of Massachusetts, Kendra Ford from New Hampshire, and Jacob Powsner of Vermont – comprise the group of climate activists who took over half the seats on the CLG’s coordinating committee in late 2022 via a public election that has come to be known as the “ballroom coup.”  (The epigram refers to ISO New England’s penchant for booking public meetings into hotel ballrooms, at ratepayer expense, as opposed to the auditoriums and school gyms the rest of us use for such things.)

This prompted a cease-and-desist order of sorts from ISO New England, in the form of an e-mailed comunique from the grid operator’s vice president for external affairs, Anne George.  She directed Phillips and his co-conspirators to “refrain from any further communications that misuse ISO New England and/or misrepresent the description of the CLG.”

The second thing Phillips did wrong was to create an email address – – and urge people to share their eclipse-related energy conservation stories there.  “CLG operations, including accepting communications and managing the posting of materials, are under ISO’s purview,” admonished George.

Her command not to “misrepresent the description of the CLG” is apparently an allusion to Phillips having referred in his news release to the CLG as “a federally mandated elected body which serves as an information and communication link between electric ratepayers and the board of the ISO-New England.”

“The CLG was created as part of ISO New England’s efforts to comply with the FERC order, which allowed regions the flexibility to determine how to demonstrate compliance,” George retorted. “The CLG was developed through stakeholder discussions as an enhancement to ISO New England’s other interactions with consumer advocates, organizations, and consumers and was not specifically mandated by FERC.”

By “the FERC order” George means Order 719, issued by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) in 2008 to outline its expectations of grid operators like ISO New England.  Among other things, Order 719 requires grid operators to give ratepayers some means of being in dialogue with so-called “end-users” – i.e., the people who depend on the grid and who pay for all of it.

In other words, Phillips had it exactly right.  ISO New England might not like it, but the professor’s succinct description of why the CLG exists and what it does was accurate.

All of this might be worthy of filing under “teapot tempest” were it not arising against a backdrop of an emerging effort to undo the effect of the 2022 Ballroom Coup.

On April 1, two NEPOOL insiders – NEPOOL being the stakeholder ‘advisory’ body to ISO New England – issued a letter publicly calling for the abolition of the Consumer Liaison Group unless the climate activists on the coordinating committee stop “lobbying.”

The authors of the letter were Lisa Linowes – who runs something called the Industrial Wind Action Group, which exists to oppose the development of wind power – and William P. Short III, a consultant-for-hire from New York who has represented various parties at NEPOOL.

According to Linowes and Short, “the bias now entrenched in the CLG Coordinating Committee is contrary to FERC Order 719.”  Their letter accuses the climate activists on the coordinating committee of “disrespecting ISO-NE” by advocating for “climate justice” in a manner that is “unlikely to support other viewpoints.”

Linowes and Short offer no examples of when such “other viewpoints” have been excluded from the proceedings of the Consumer Liaison Group.  Nor do they explain why they think anyone surrendered their First Amendment liberties by gaining election to the CLG coordinating committee.

CLG meetings are nothing if not a festival of various opinions with respect to how to run the electric grid.  Yet Linowes and Short do not seem to mind when people call for more legacy infrastructure (gas pipelines, gas generators, nuclear power plants, transmission lines) or rules that favor entrenched transmission and generation owners.

You might be wondering why I care about all of this, given that I am not a climate activist.  My job, as New Hampshire’s consumer advocate, is to advance the interests of our state’s residential utility customers.

I care because these climate activists have helped transform the CLG from a torpid coffee klatch to a body whose quarterly meetings are now a lively but respectful dialogue between the grid users and the grid operators.  They deserve the thanks, rather than the scorn, of people like Anne George, Lisa Linowes, and William P. Short III.

As an elected member of the CLG’s coordinating committee myself, I have worked alongside these activists for nearly two years.  I have been impressed by the seriousness with which they confront their responsibilities for making CLG meetings successful – their opinions, right or wrong, notwithstanding.

Perhaps Phillips went a half-step too far in creating an e-mail account that looked like an official CLG address.  He deserves forgiveness for a minor transgression arising out of frustration with how resistant ISO New England is to using its own resources to give ratepayers a way to talk back to their grid.

The next CLG coordinating committee election is six months away; any New England ratepayer or official representative of ratepayers is eligible.  Whether they are climate activists or not, I hope we elect more people like Nathan Phillips to lead what is, after all, the only mechanism we have to hold our grid operator publicly accountable.  If that annoys ISO New England, so be it.

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