Power grid operator needs a makeover

Status quo, special interests need to give way at ISO New England

THE LARGEST OFFSHORE wind project in the nation is coming to the waters off Massachusetts, setting our Commonwealth up to be a global leader in clean energy that can deliver on the promise of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and creating good-paying green jobs across the state. But to get there, and to pave the way for more projects like Vineyard Wind to come online, our electrical infrastructure needs to be prepared to handle these significant new sources of clean energy. Currently, an antiquated power grid — the infrastructure at the core of that transition —  is threatening our progress in reducing emissions and addressing the climate crisis, just as our transition to clean energy is beginning to gain steam.

The transmission grid is the central artery for our electric power systems, determining where our energy comes from, how much that energy costs, and how it’s distributed. In Massachusetts, our transmission grid and energy markets are managed by an organization called ISO New England, which also serves the other five New England states. To date, ISO-NE’s management has prioritized a continuation of the status quo, setting rules that favor polluting fossil fuel plants and perpetuating barriers that make it difficult to connect Massachusetts consumers with cost-effective clean energy.

To ensure the success of Vineyard Wind and the other large-scale clean energy projects that will follow, we need to change the rules for our grid and invest in a smart and reliable clean energy grid that connects us to cost-effective renewable energy throughout the region and stops standing in the way of our critical emissions reduction goals.

First, we need to change how ISO-NE is governed to improve the organization’s accountability and transparency, prioritize input from states like Massachusetts, and ensure decisions are made with input from a more diverse range of stakeholders. ISO-NE must commit to delivering on the New England states’ climate, environmental justice, and policy commitments in both its mission and in its planning, markets, and decisions.

Second, we must reimagine transmission planning to prioritize cost-effective reliability, reflect the climate-focused decision making already enshrined in law by the New England states, and incorporate environmental justice priorities. This will enable the shift away from fossil fuel power plants that pollute our population centers to large-scale clean generation like wind and solar, together with clean distributed energy, as well as cutting-edge energy storage solutions and resilient microgrids.

A planning process dominated by entrenched interests behind closed doors that gives no meaningful weight to state law and policy will only result in a continuation of the status quo. ISO-NE must bring its planning processes into the 21st century. Planning must incorporate data-driven solutions that identify the timing and location of transmission that will optimize the grid to reach our critical clean energy goals in a cost-effective manner.

Finally, we need to change the old-fashioned assumptions of the energy markets that prohibit clean energy resources from fair competition and give fossil fuels a leg up. Even though every New England state has made commitments to reduce emissions and increase renewable energy procurement, ISO-NE maintains a market with a thumb on the scale for fossil fuels. Reforms should align with states’ climate objectives and remove barriers that stand in the way of allowing renewable energy projects to come online quickly and compete fairly. Although a significant redesign of the ISO-NE markets will take time, it’s necessary to secure the buy-in of all stakeholders, including New Englanders who have been burdened by the current system’s reliance on costly and polluting fossil fuel plants.

With the potential for our state to produce around 800 terawatt hours of energy from offshore wind alone, we’re at an inflection point for clean energy and clean jobs in Massachusetts. There is no doubt that the decisions we make now will determine the fate of our burgeoning clean energy economy and our region’s efforts to cut harmful pollutants. With the passage of the Next Generation Climate Roadmap, we now have the framework to achieve critical climate goals across the Commonwealth. There is a queue of innovative and exciting clean energy projects in the pipeline that will allow us to rapidly increase our renewable energy procurement over the next decade. Now we need a reformed ISO-NE to deliver the modernized grid that will make that innovation possible.

Jennifer Benson is the president of the Alliance for Business Leadership and Amy Boyd is the director of policy at the Acadia Center.