The invisible hand of Gordon van Welie

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.

  • I don’t personally know the ISO-NE principals, but I have read their products and those of their counterparts from elsewhere in the USA. And I have watched what parts of Europe have done.

    I can imagine why ISO-NE and van Welie would take their stance: They have no personal experience doing hour-by-hour dynamic forecasting and control. It’s not how their system works. They have deep social ties with the utilities industry, one of the most conservative bunch of operational people you can imagine, especially in New England. I don’t exaggerate: I was at a meeting where a high level representative of a local utility was astonished that anyone could handle a million data points an hour, yet, on the Internet, in high tech, multiple billions of datapoints are wrangled every five minutes.

    It could be, too, that ISO-NE does not really do long term planning, at least not accurately. (EIA often falls short of that, too.) And a decentralized grid is one they would not control, not in the sense they do now. So they would lose political influence.

    I see new energy technologies as a means of recapturing much of our democracy, but if you want to take back control of your government and your democracy, take back control of your energy supply from what is, essentially, a Stalinist cooperative.

  • Mhmjjj2012

    The U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates the United States has enough natural gas to last about 93 years. Gee whiz, we should be working to increase energy efficiency and renewables so we can extend the end of natural gas date as far into the future as possible. ISO New England should find a new CEO. Gordon van Welie is definitely not worth his almost $2 million annual salary.

  • NortheasternEE

    Gordon Van Wellie is caught in a bind. State and regional policy makers have legislated mandates for 20% renewable energy by 2020. Variable energy resources (VER), mostly wind and solar, need additional firming support to function reliably on the grid. That support can only come from natural gas or mass energy storage. To make things worse, policymakers are now pushing mandate increases to 50%, 80%, and the impossible 100%. This is the policy that is making natural gas king on the grid. Mass energy storage is prohibitively expansive, unavailable with an uncertain future. While coal is environmentally undesirable and its replacement on the grid by natural gas may be desirable, the policy and future outlook to 100% renewable is also eliminating nuclear power in favor of natural gas.

    From Gordon’s point of view, policy makers are giving him a problem that can only be resolved with a massive increase in natural gas supply. He knows that once coal and nuclear is eliminated, without more natural gas blackouts are inevitable.

    If you do not like natural gas, don’t blame Gordon Van Wellie. Blame state and regional policymakers who want the impossible 100% renewable energy grid. Tell them to stop legislating clean energy mandates and let Gordon Van Wellie give us the cleanest energy at reasonable cost and reliability.

  • Pat Brady Martin

    Brilliant! Exactly. I can’t even count how many times I’ve heard legislators quote van Welie as the authority on whether or not we need more pipelines. Based on what? Making us more dependent on natural gas seems like a move in the wrong direction.

  • Grid stability with large amounts of variable wind and solar energy is a dynamic controls problem. It’s solved every day when modern aircraft fly. The trouble with local utilities is that they know that perfectly well, and they are working to keep the grid dumb to keep their business models intact.

  • NortheasternEE

    In New England utilities, (Eversource, National Grid) are not allowed to own generating assets, only distribution assets. Their business increases with renewables that need smart grids and long transmission lines.

  • Mhmjjj2012

    We really need to understand how we got to where we are with the deregulation of utilities. The Massachusetts state legislature passed a bill under the cover of an “emergency…” just like their “emergency” compensation bill…that it was “necessary for the immediate preservation of the public convenience.” Dismantling a utility model that worked for decades and giving undeserved raises to useless legislators ranks as an “emergency” and a “public convenience?”