Fighting for Cleaner, Cheaper Energy Via Distributed Generation | CLF

Fighting for Cleaner, Cheaper Energy Through Distributed Generation

Jerry Elmer

CLF is taking an active role in the newly-created Distributed Generation Forecast Working Group (DGFWG) of the Independent System Operator-New England (ISO-NE). The ISO-NE is the operator of the New England electricity grid.  You can read the background on CLF’s on-going work with ISO-NE.

What is Distributed Generation?

Distributed Generation (DG) is small, local, electricity-generation facilities; DG most often refers to renewable energy.  According to the ISO-NE, “[t]he most common distributed generation resources include: solar photovoltaic (PV), small-scale wind, fuel cells, combined heat and power, and small hydro-electric power.”

Every state in New England has laws designed to encourage renewable DG, usually as part of a broader package of laws that encourage renewable energy.  In recent years, these laws have been effective in stimulating the development of many megawatts of renewable energy in all six New England states.

But we do not really know how much.  In fact, the ISO-NE believes that 85% of all the renewable-energy DG in New England is “invisible” to the ISO-NE – that is, the ISO-NE is neither aware of its existence nor of its location.  The purpose of the ISO-NE’s newly-formed DGFWG is to correct this problem, to identify how much DG there is in New England, what type (that is, technology) it is, and where it is located.

What is Happening?

At the very first meeting of the DGFWG, on September 30, the ISO-NE circulated a proposed “Scope of Work” for the Working Group.  CLF, together with the Maine Office of the Public Advocate (MOPA), is advocating that the ISO change significantly the Scope of Work for the new DGFWG. 

The primary suggestion we are making is very simple.  The ISO-NE’s proposal would have the DGFWG look only at the costs and engineering challenges presented by DG.  As CLF would revise the Scope of Work, the DGFWG would examine and quantify both the challenges and the benefits from DG.

This is an important distinction.  DG is like every other energy source in the world:  it comes with both costs and benefits.  (For example, coal has the benefit of being cheap; but it has the costs of being extremely dirty, putting toxic mercury into the atmosphere, and being a major cause of climate change.)  By contrast, renewable DG may cost a little more than coal, but DG is clean, creates local jobs, builds an area’s economy, and does not spew either toxic mercury nor greenhouse gas pollution into the atmosphere.

Today, every state in New England has a pretty good idea how much extra it is spending to encourage development of clean renewable-energy DG.  But no one has ever tried to accurately quantify either how much DG we are getting for that extra spending (in megawatts), nor quantify the ratepayer benefits we are reaping (in dollars).  CLF is advocating to have the DGFWG make a start on correcting that imbalance, by accounting for the many benefits of DG that is already on the system.

The existing DG on the ISO-NE’s electricity grid can confer benefits to ratepayers in a variety of ways.  For example, knowing about existing DG may enable the ISO-NE to be able to buy less of the most expensive electricity at times of peak loads, thereby saving money for ratepayers.  Knowing exactly where the DG is located may help my reducing the need to build out expensive new transmission projects, thereby resulting in more ratepayer savings.  But ratepayers can only realize those benefits if the ISO-NE “sees” and properly accounts for the DG that the states have already paid for.

What Can be Done?

I represent CLF on the DGFWG, and here is one aspect of that representation that I especially like.  Sometimes, we environmentalists are criticized for wanting industry (and the public) to spend more money for environmental safeguards.  Of course, I understand the many invaluable benefits to the public health and well-being that come with those safeguards; nevertheless, the criticism that is often heard is that environmentalists are costing the public money.

But our work on the DGFWG is doing just the opposite.  In this case, we are fighting to save the public money.  Every New England state is spending money (sometimes millions of dollars) on DG.  We environmentalists have sold DG to the public by explaining – honestly – that DG confers many benefits.  But ratepayers only reap the financial benefits of DG if the ISO “sees” and properly accounts for the DG that is already on the system.

CLF was very pleased to be joined by the Maine Office of the Public Advocate – the statutory ratepayer advocate in Maine – in submitting joint recommendations for changes to the DGFWG’s Scope of Work.  We are pleased because both CLF and MOPA are trying to advocate for ratepayer interests here.

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