The invisible hand of Gordon van Welie

Power grid operator too preoccupied with pipelines

OUR GRID OPERATOR, ISO New England, celebrates its 20th anniversary this month. For two decades, the ISO has been in charge of keeping the lights on throughout the region, coordinating the flow of electricity to power plants. As we become more aware of the consequences of different sources of energy production – from climate change to fuel price spikes to eminent domain takings for pipelines – how do we ensure that our grid operator is in sync with 2st century needs?

The ISO has functioned during major shifts in how New England generates electric power – retirements of coal, oil, and nuclear plants; a shift towards natural gas-power generation plants in the region, soon followed by the fracking boom that has largely shaped ISO’s vision of a reliable grid; and the blossoming of a local renewable energy industry, buttressed by a recognition by many policymakers that greenhouse gas emissions must be reduced to address an emerging climate crisis.

The ISO – which stands for Independent System Operator – was designed to be independent from power producers and neutral about what resources are secured, as long as they are determined to be cost-effective. Large power plants – whether gas, oil, coal, or nuclear – have been relatively easy for the grid operator to manage, using fuels that have the lowest cost at any given time. Conversely, renewable energy presents challenges to business as usual, in part because energy sources such as wind and sunshine are outside of the grid operator’s control. Also, “behind the meter” energy resources, such as rooftop solar and micro-grids with the ability to run independently from the ISO’s network, strain the ISO’s forecasting methodologies.

Admittedly, the ISO in New England faces challenges that other grid operators do not – the most progressive examples in the country, the ISOs for California and New York, only need to deal with a single state’s policy objectives and directives, while the ISO in New England functions in six states with six sets of energy policies. On the other hand, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island have each enacted Global Warming Solutions laws, imposing obligations for an 80 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Despite this mandate imposed upon the vast majority of New England’s energy producers and consumers, the ISO’s leadership has demonstrated a clear preference for the easy, old-school solutions that are at odds with climate realities and innovative trends in energy-self-sufficiency for the region.

When I participated in a small-group, sit-down meeting in late 2014 with Gordon van Welie, the ISO’s CEO, a disconnect was palpable – between how we envision a sustainable power system, and the vision held by the ISO’s leadership. Van Welie did not dispute the impacts of climate change, but told us that he expects things to get very ugly in that regard before business as usual changes. His team touted the ISO’s integration of demand-side resources and renewables into their forecasting, but cast our energy challenges as essentially insurmountable without a major buildout of natural gas infrastructure. Van Welie admitted that he had his “finger on the scale” in favor of additional gas pipelines in the region. Public records requests filed by the Conservation Law Foundation earlier that year unearthed meeting notes showing that van Welie had gone further, telling state and federal regulators that “what you need to do is overbuild” the pipeline.

In 2011, faced with an energy system in transition, the ISO identified dependence on natural gas as its No. 1 challenge. Unfortunately, the ISO’s primary solution has been to push for more gas pipeline capacity to allow for greater dependence on natural gas. While there are efforts within the ISO to increase the diversity of the resources available to meet our power needs and embrace renewables, these efforts have taken a backseat to the push for more pipelines. Simultaneously, and perhaps not by accident, the ISO’s forecasts have consistently undervalued the role of energy efficiency and solar power.

The ISO’s service to our region should not be taken for granted, but the proven ability to maintain a reliable grid does not equate to a technocratic impartiality. The invisible hand of Gordon van Welie wields significant power over regional energy policy. For better or worse, when the ISO of New England’s CEO talks about regional energy problems and solutions, policymakers listen. If van Welie had been aggressively advocating for renewable energy storage and peak demand management for the past six years, instead of pushing a major expansion of gas pipeline capacity, we would likely be having a different regional conversation about energy policy and priorities.

Meet the Author

Kathryn R. Eiseman

President, Pipe Line Awareness Network for the Northeast Inc.
The concern is ultimately whether, when it comes to forward-thinking leadership at the ISO, the lights are on, but nobody’s home.

Kathryn R. Eiseman is the director of the Massachusetts Pipe Line Awareness Network and the president of the President, Pipe Line Awareness Network for the Northeast Inc.