Challenging the status quo on electricity, heating

Two top officials with the Conservation Law Foundation say the region’s power grid operator and the state’s utilities are in some ways part of the problem instead of the solution to dealing with climate change. 

Greg Cunningham, the vice president and director of CLF’s clean energy and climate change program, and Caitlin Peale Sloan, the vice president for Massachusetts, said on The Codcast that they are concerned the institutions that should be leading the fight against climate change are not doing so. 

Cunningham’s focus is on ISO-New England, the region’s power grid operator headed by Gordon van Welie. Van Welie was a guest on The Codcast two weeks ago and his focus was on the vulnerability of the power grid, the potential for rolling blackouts, and the continued need for natural gas as a backup fuel.

“It’s frustrating needless to say for us to sit here in 2022 and hear the litany of problems and concerns repeated over and over again from the entity that was designed to be central around fixing them,” Cunningham said. “Gordon van Welie has a substantial pedestal from which to speak and many people listen when he does. There’s an unfortunate tendency to use fear-mongering and the risk of rolling blackouts and all of the bad things that may happen if we don’t address these issues rather than identifying for us how we’re going to solve these problems.” 

ISO-New England hasn’t yet found a way to incorporate the clean energy New England needs into the region’s wholesale electricity markets. Van Welie is trying to buy more time to find a solution by asking the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to approve an extension, with a few tweaks, of the existing, flawed regulatory system. He is facing pushback from Attorney General Maura Healey and others who feel the status quo is not acceptable.

Sloan is equally concerned about National Grid’s proposal to decarbonize the way we heat homes and buildings by keeping the existing system of pipes in place and swapping out natural gas for renewable natural gas and green hydrogen. She says pumping a different form of methane through a leaking pipe system doesn’t work for her.

“My reaction to any of our gas utilities who talk about essentially keeping their current business models and swapping in alternative fuels is that that’s just categorically not a decarbonization plan,” she said. 

Cunningham said he has the same reaction to ISO-New England’s continued reliance on natural gas. “To identify gas and the need to bring more gas into the region as part of the solution, feels, as Caitlin was saying about the utilities, it’s just a justification for continuing to do business as usual, which is no plan at all,” he said. 

Sloan said Massachusetts energy policy has been stalled in place for most of the last eight years with the exception of offshore wind procurements. She said the Baker administration’s push to wean solar companies off of subsidies “is exactly the opposite of what we should be doing.”

Cunningham said the calls by the two Democratic candidates for governor — Healey and Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz — for the power grid to be fueled by clean, renewable energy by 2030 are not unrealistic. 

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Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

“Is it feasible? Yes, it’s absolutely feasible from a technical and physics perspective,” he said. “I think the question is how much will it cost.” 

Neither Cunningham nor Sloan see a need to blow up the current regulatory framework, but they say time is running short. “I don’t think we’re advocating for blowing it up now, but I can tell you that if change doesn’t happen soon it’s going to blow up,” Cunningham said.