The convention hall at DoubleTree by Hilton in Portland feels very dark as Marya Axner and I arrive late for the FERC meeting. This is not because the lights are turned off. No, instead, the 150 or so male, fossil fuel executives at the meeting are all wearing black suits, absorbing the overhead light. As they are middle-aged or older, I am guessing the black color is a comforting reminder of those days when they burned coal, and no one was trying to replace them with wind and solar power.

I have barely gotten seated when the Chairman of the Rhode Island Public Utilities Commission confesses that he is surprised that the ISO’s latest study of the region’s energy supply shows there is considerable solar power generated in the winter and there will be more each year. This probably demonstrates that executives in the industry have come to believe their propaganda slogan that the sun doesn’t shine in the winter and the wind doesn’t blow in the summer. Clearly, the Chairman needs to get outside more.

There is a feeling of unease in the room as people digest the latest ISO study of winter energy supply which, among other things, says that increasing amounts of wind and solar power in the region are providing new electricity that makes it unlikely there will be a power shortage and electricity crunch during winter cold snaps. This actual data about real conditions completely upends the wild talk at the FERC meeting last September in Burlington, VT that we were on the verge of rolling blackouts every winter unless we increased the supply of natural gas.

FERC Commissioner Danley, a Republican, is visibly unhappy that there is no crisis that might panic New England into building more natural gas pipelines. He tells the room that he is not convinced that the data is correct. This proves the old saying that data about the real world cannot displace ideological beliefs. He spends much of the rest of the day asking members of the several panels if they believe the data that ISO has produced.

A Vice President at Eversource eagerly announces that he is skeptical that the wind and solar power counted by ISO will come online in time to prevent the lights from going out. Of course, Eversource is in the process of selling its stake in two offshore wind projects, so they are walking away from any responsibility to ensure that barriers are being overcome. Sad that one of the largest utilities in New England is not stepping up and helping the transition to wind and solar. Perhaps the Healy administration’s new DPU commissioners can prod them into doing the right thing.

Responding to Danley’s questioning, the Senior Vice President and Chief Engineer of North American Electric Reliability Corporation refers fondly to the age when everyone burned reliable coal and agrees that we should not rush into depending on wind and solar which are “intermittent” suppliers of electricity. Unlike natural gas, where plants all over the mid-west shut down last winter during a cold snap and almost blacked out that region.

In contrast, Rebecca Tepper, Secretary of the Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs and Katie Dykes, Commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection are very happy about the new analytical tool created by ISO-NE and the reassuring data it has produced. Both make clear that their states, which use about 75% of the electricity in New England, are moving ahead briskly by directly contracting with offshore wind and onshore solar projects. These projects will produce huge amounts of electricity that their utilities are mandated to use before they tap into electricity from the ISO system. Hanging over the room is the ISO study, which predicts that these renewable resources, over the next five years, will be gradually displacing electricity generated by natural gas plants.

The highest point of the meeting, from our point of view, is Rebecca Tepper beginning her presentation by saying that the people who signed on to the Fix the Grid letter to FERC and NESCOE ought to be at the presentation tables during the next FERC visit to New England. This is a point of unity as representatives from Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Vermont express no fear of letting the public and its advocacy groups become voices in the discussion of our energy future – Hurray! 

To be continued…

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