What Is the ISO and Why Is CLF Working With It?

Question:  What is the ISO-NE?

Answer:  The Independent System Operator-New England (ISO-New England) is the organization of engineers and technical experts that runs New England’s electricity grid. (There are other ISOs that run the electricity grids in other parts of the country, such as New York ISO and California ISO.) ISO-New England ensures the reliability of the electricity grid here in New England. For example, ISO-New England determines when additional electricity generation plants have to be turned on during a summer heat wave to make sure that there is no blackout when lots of people all turn on their air conditioners at the same time. If you had to describe the task of the ISO-New England is just a few words you would say: They are the people who make sure that when you flip the switch in your living room, you actually get the electricity to turn on your lights. ISO-New England keeps the lights on here in New England.

Question:  Why and how does CLF interact with ISO-New England?

Answer:  As New England’s leading environmental advocacy organization, CLF has multiple programs addressing the problem of climate change and greenhouse gas emissions. At least three of these programs dealing with climate change bring us into contact with ISO-New England.

  • Coal-Free New England. CLF is working – through lawsuits and other means – to permanently close all of the remaining coal-fired power plants in New England. Coal is the most carbon-intensive source of electricity. In New England, emissions from coal-fired power plants make up a disproportionate share of the greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming. Scientists and energy experts have concluded that the rapid phase out of coal is required to avoid the most devastating impacts of climate change, including sea level rise, a threat of particular concern in New England.
  • Supporting Renewable Energy. CLF is working actively to support renewable energy here in New England – projects such as Cape Wind. CLF staff attorneys have written many of the key laws governing and promoting renewable energy in several New England states, and our staff attorneys litigate frequently in state utilities commissions to make sure that those laws are properly carried out.
  • Efficiency.  Energy efficiency is the cleanest and cheapest way for New England to meet its energy needs. We can save money and create jobs while reducing the greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change. CLF staff attorneys have been deeply involved in energy efficiency work in all six New England states. Specifically, CLF has been an active participant in both crafting the legal and statutory framework governing EE efforts in these states, and in the regulatory process of implementing efficiency efforts.

Of course, CLF sees all these programs as closely linked: we want to close down old, dirty, polluting coal-fired power plants and replace them with clean renewable energy. We help both of these efforts by promoting energy efficiency, because efficiency lowers overall demand for all electricity.

All of these efforts – closing dirty old coal-fired plants, supporting development of clean renewable energy, and implementing energy efficiency – bring us into contact with ISO-New England. Closing coal-fired plants poses engineering challenges because coal-fired power plants provide so-called “baseload generation,” that is, they are able to produce electricity all the time – day and night, seven days a week, 365 days a year. Integrating renewable energy into the electricity grid also presents challenges.  For example, many renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar, are variable. Wind turbines only produce electricity when the wind blows; solar arrays don’t produce electricity at night. In order for CLF (and other environmentalists) to succeed in closing dirty coal-fired power plants and replacing them with renewable energy we need to be able to address and solve these engineering challenges – because people (and businesses) want and need reliable energy. Everyone wants to be able to turn on their lights 365 days a year, even when the wind is not blowing, even when the sun is not shining.

Question:  Why is CLF’s work with ISO-New England important?

Answer:  CLF’s work with ISO  is important in at least two different ways.

  • Technically – This work is important technically if we really hope to accomplish our goals – a completely coal-free New England that makes extensive use of clean renewable energy.
  • Politically – This work is important politically, too. In 2003, California Governor Gray Davis was recalled in large part because of public outrage over rolling blackouts that had occurred earlier in his tenure. The recall was an incredible event – it was only the second successful recall of a Governor in all of U.S. history. (The only earlier one was the 1921 recall of North Dakota Governor Lynn Frazier.) The California blackouts were due to many factors, including market manipulation by Enron.  The point here is that when people flip their light switch, they want the lights to go. If the efforts of environmentalists to close coal plants and replace the electricity with renewable energy lead to blackouts, there will be a huge backlash against environmentalists, and the cause of renewable energy could be set back decades. CLF’s work with ISO-NE is designed to make sure that does not happen.

Summing It Up: As CLF works to close old, dirty, polluting coal fired power plants and replace them with clean, renewable energy, we have to also make sure that we keep the lights on for everyone. That’s what ISO-New England does, and that’s why CLF staff serve on several of ISO-New England’s working committees.