NU/NStar & FERC Order 1000: Our Shared Energy Future

Mar 22, 2012 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

A few weeks ago I attended a conference in Washington, DC that brought together environmental groups from all over the country. In speaking with my colleagues, I was reminded of how this country is a patchwork quilt: each of us brought a unique set of challenges, a strong independent sense of identity, and solutions to regional challenges – solutions that are sometimes adopted at the national level. This certainly is true of New England.

Over the last year, two events have emphasized the importance of interregional coordination. In the process, they have reminded me of New England’s long history of regional cooperation to advance nation leading clean energy projects, and of the way in which those have been adopted on the national stage.

The first of these issues is FERC Order 1,000 – a significant reform to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s position on “electric transmission planning and cost allocation requirements for public utility transmission providers” issued in June of 2010. That Order, and material explaining it, can be found on the FERC website. The new rules announced in that Order mandate that utilities operating wholesale electricity systems across the country engage in a process of regional planning. Here in New England, we have been doing that for as long, if not longer, than anywhere else in the country, so that part of the order will prompt new regional innovations largely elsewhere in the country. Another part of the order instructs regional operators of the electric grid to consider the public policy mandates of the states in their region in the planning they do for their part of the grid. The New England states have a variety of innovative policies intended to bring about a clean energy future. How our regional grid operator accounts for those in its planning is very likely to break ground for the rest of the country.

Similarly, the recent breakthrough settlement agreement by the Patrick Administration in the proposed merger between NStar and Northeast Utilities also reminded me of the need for regional coordination. Consider the scale of the proposed utility: As The Boston Globe reported, “the proposed $17.5 billion merger… would create the largest utility in the region, [and serve] nearly 3.5 million electric and gas customers from Westport, Conn., to Pittsburg, N.H., near the Canadian border.”

With a reach extending from southern Connecticut to Northern New Hampshire by way of Boston, the resulting utility has obligations under a variety of critical state policies intended to protect the environment and build a resilient clean energy economy. The right to operate as a state-sanctioned monopoly is conditioned on the utility meeting those obligations. The initial terms of the proposed merger did not meet those requirements; the merger as revised by the settlement, as my colleague Sue Reid said, “ensures that this powerful new utility will be in lockstep with Massachusetts’ nation-leading clean energy policies and propel the state forward instead of backwards in implementing them.”

This cases highlight the need for advocacy groups to be able to field their teams  on a scale and in a manner that that rises to the challenge of the moment. The NU/NStar merger required us to play on a regional scale; FERC Order 1,000 provides a chance to use the federally regulated planning process to advance critical state policies that are designed to build a cleaner and thriving New England. The challenges we face, and the institutions we engage (like utilities), are large and extend across our region and beyond, not respecting traditional boundaries. CLF must meet this challenge with size, scale, intentions, goals, and strategies that are appropriately sized to meet those challenges.

Given New England’s strong tradition of leadership on energy and environmental issues, I have confidence we have the tools required. However, as my conversations in DC emphasized, what is appropriate here in New England is not appropriate for every region.

Given the differences between the various regions of the country, and various areas within those regions, I wonder: To what extent can we successfully plot a common future? These questions are as relevant within New England as between regions.

Driving south from Acadia National Park in Maine or Hanover, New Hampshire, or east from Springfield, MA and Hartford, CT the scenery changes, the weather warms and the population becomes more dense. Though each place is in New England, each feels very different – and, if you ask someone on the street, chances are they’ll tell you just how unique and independent their town or city is. The same is true as you travel north from Atlanta or NYC to Boston, or east from Chicago or San Francisco. Within New England, as within our country, our differences can be easier to see than our shared future, but it is the latter that requires our attention.

More and more, we have the tools. That puts us in a good position to work together, town by town, region by region, for a thriving New England, and a thriving country.

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