Grid operator should stop crying wolf

It's time to step up on climate or get out of the way

NEW ENGLAND’S fossil fuel interests and electric grid operator are at it again. Every winter, they issue dire warnings that our region’s power grid won’t be able to handle the stress of another season of extreme weather.

As this week’s CommonWealth story highlights, 2022 is no different. It’s time to call out ISO-New England (our electric grid operator) and fossil fuel companies for this naked attempt to prop up oil and gas at the expense of renewables and state climate policy.

Last week it was the owners of fossil power plants predicting doom. Back in December, it was a coalition of oil and gas dealers who sent a letter to governors of every New England state with their own SOS. Both use the same false narrative predicting the kind of extreme weather that shut down Texas’ electricity and gas systems last February could hit our region this year. The oil dealers took aim at state programs to promote electric heat pumps for home and business heating, demanding they must be “ceased immediately.”

Their solution? Firing up more climate-polluting heating oil and gas of course.

The oil dealers aimed their ire at heat pump programs because transitioning to electric heat is at the center of state strategies to cut climate-damaging emissions. Heating our homes and buildings with electric heat pumps poses a threat, as it means moving away from gas and oil in favor of clean energy sources. The owners of dirty power want to limit clean energy and extend the life of their power plants.

Both pleas have the circularity of a Texas two-step: to avoid risks posed by severe weather, we must burn more fossil fuels. But that severe weather is driven in large part by climate change – which is caused by burning those very fossil fuels.

The misleading messages of fear peddled by oil and gas companies would not be newsworthy or catch the attention of our politicians if not for one critical factor. They echo the anti-clean energy rhetoric of a supposedly credible source: ISO-New England.

ISO’s anti-clean energy message follows the same pattern every year. It begins at the start of the winter season when ISO issues its annual “Winter Outlook,” which is then duly reported in the media. The outlook is intended to help inform and, to some extent, forecast what the electricity system, market performance, and costs will look like in the coming months. For years, ISO has used the outlook as a tool to lobby (read: scare) the region into continued reliance on fossil fuels.

By now, we have come to expect the outlook to tell us that gas power plants may not perform because we have not built enough gas pipelines into the region. That our homes and businesses may suffer rolling blackouts because we don’t have enough gas. Never mind that New England has never seen a widespread blackout.

Gordon van Welie, the CEO of ISO New England. (Photo courtesy of ISO New England)

So how is it that ISO-New England, a nonprofit corporation prohibited from political activity, can lend such weighty support to an industry whose interests run counter to New England’s climate goals? The answer lies primarily with ISO’s misplaced belief that it serves only three roles: to keep the lights on, to manage electricity prices, and plan the future of the region’s electric system.

That’s why, last year, all six New England states urged ISO to include climate in its mission statement. They also asked ISO to change how it manages markets and the electricity grid so that it can be part of the climate solution.

We face a winter with real potential for high heating and electricity bills due to the pandemic, severe weather events, and geopolitically caused oil and gas shortages. Massachusetts and other Northeastern states are pushing hard to end the fossil fuel addiction that produces such unstable prices in the short-term – and certain climate damage over the long term.

It’s time for ISO-New England to stop the misleading rhetoric. Our grid operator needs to step up on climate or step out of the way.

Bradley Campbell is president of Conservation Law Foundation.