In what may have been one of his last appearances as a leader of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), Commissioner Neil Chatterjee delivered frank remarks about his tenure and offered optimism for the Senate-passed infrastructure package during CRES Forum’s latest webinar, “Resiliency and Clean Energy: Keeping the Lights on While Reducing Emissions” held on August 11. Chatterjee announced he will step down effective August 30.
Having previously served as a legislative aide in a partisan capacity rather than as an independent regulator, Commissioner Chatterjee recognized that his tenure, unfortunately, became mired in politics.
“I fear that I injected an element of politics, which has made it difficult to consider what is a real issue,” he admitted. “I’m hoping that with my departure my colleagues will be able to do the serious work of the new docket that was opened in this regard because it’s very important work to do.”
Notably, in 2017, that would have compensated generation sources for their ability to store fuel onsite, which some criticized as a blatantly partisan scheme to save struggling coal and nuclear plants.
However, in light of the crisis in Texas earlier this year, many are reconsidering that decision. One of Commissioner Chatterjee’s predecessors, former FERC Chairman Pat Wood, III, was also on the webinar and expressed shared regret for FERC’s decision-making on this issue.
“Looking back, as Neil just admitted, and I am with him nodding, I wish we’d been able to pivot that to a really thoughtful view of forward-looking resiliency market incentives,” explained Wood, who is now CEO of the Hunt Energy Network in Texas. “Because that’s the answer. How do we keep all this on, how do we clean up what’s dirty, but keep using it when we need to?”
The outgoing commissioner and former chairman joined other panelists in discussing approaches to enhancing grid resiliency, securing long-term reliability, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
The past year has seen real-life consequences for families living in places like California, which endured rolling blackouts last summer, and Texas—suffering a statewide outage during an extreme winter storm in February. Therefore, grid resiliency and regulation of the electric grid is expected to become, perhaps for the first time ever, a key issue for a broad range of voters in years to come.
Chatterjee said the commission should “put the bulk of its focus in the coming years” on resiliency and examine the market designs in both Texas and California, a sentiment that was echoed by other panelists.
It is hard to discuss the topic of the aging grid without touching on the hot topic in Washington these days: infrastructure. Commissioner Chatterjee concluded on this point, expressing enthusiasm for the bipartisan infrastructure package.
“I was just encouraged that there were 69 votes in the Senate; it was a bipartisan bill. To me, all of these issues should be above politics, and all Americans should be focused on them,” he said.
“$550 billion above the baseline is a big deal. I worked on the last bipartisan infrastructure package … I know how hard it is to put these packages together—and pay for them. So, I really commend Senators Sinema and Portman, in particular, for their tremendous effort in this regard.”
The Renewable Energy Buyers Alliance (REBA) represents hundreds of large-scale energy buyers seeking to procure renewable energy across the U.S. Its Director of Policy Innovation, Bryn Baker, said they have two priorities.
“The first one is markets. Whether it’s bottom-up or top-down approaches to decarbonization, markets should underpin it,” she said. “We think there should ultimately be an organized wholesale market or RTO [Regional Transmission Organization] in every region of the country to give customers transparency, the reliability, and the least-cost transition to zero-carbon energy sources.”
“Secondly, around transmission, we are calling for a transmission macro-grid,” she added. “A macro-grid that is really connecting the nation’s power grids together via a transmission system would help improve resilience to extreme weather by balancing and sharing resources across a wider geographic region.”
Key to market design, in particular, is ensuring price signals. Xcel Energy is doing their part, according to Vice President of Strategy and Planning Jonathan Adelman. A Minneapolis-based utility operating across eight Midwest states, Xcel announced its plan in 2018 to emit 80 percent less carbon by 2030 and become completely zero-carbon by 2050. They’ve already eliminated around 50 percent of their carbon.
“You’ve got to manage the carbon, you’ve got to manage the costs, and you’ve got to manage the reliability,” said Adelman. “And if you don’t do all three of those things, I think you run the risk of putting the brakes on and even reversing the course.”
The other important factor is empowering consumers. As Wood put it, “Look back toward the meter. I think one of things as we decarbonize and decentralize … we’ve also got to democratize.”
“As we’re trying to integrate consumer renewables like rooftop solar and battery storage, ultimately, as you gain scale, utilities need the ability to see and hopefully have some interaction with consumer renewables,” claimed panelist Elin Swanson Katz, a vice-president at Tilson, which provides communications networking deployment and information system services to utility clients.