It's no simple task for ISO New England to balance reliability and the shift toward renewables.
Central Maine Power utility lines are seen on Oct. 6, 2021, in Pownal. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

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Anne George is vice president of external affairs and corporate communications at ISO New England.

A recent column from the Conservation Law Foundation, “ISO New England is holding back our clean energy future,” contains inaccuracies and mischaracterizations. Publishing such pieces does nothing to help the region understand what it will take to reliably and cost-effectively transition to the clean energy future we all want.

The assertions made by the foundation and others about the ease in which the region can transition are not grounded in reality. To suggest that the region’s solution to its long-standing winter reliability challenges involves simply moving from fossil fuels to renewable energy reveals a lack of understanding of what is required for reliable power today and for a clean energy future. Instead of advancing regional discussions, its statements are detrimental to the honest conversations we need to have about the challenges New England faces in its vitally important clean energy transition. To blame ISO New England for these challenges is just scapegoating.

In making these arguments, the foundation has often used the fact that the region hasn’t seen widespread controlled power outages as evidence that they won’t happen in the future. This argument is as specious as it is illogical. Texas, which experienced widespread outages in 2021, hadn’t seen the type of power stress they saw until they did. As our region’s electricity supply becomes more fragile, ISO New England would be derelict if we did not speak up when we have concerns. 

For those not familiar with ISO New England, we are the nonprofit entity responsible for maintaining a reliable power system for New England’s 15 million residents. We do this by operating the region’s bulk power grid, administering the region’s wholesale markets and planning for the future. We do not own, operate, develop or site energy infrastructure, and we do not have any financial stake in the electricity markets.

We are regulated by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and conduct our work in accordance with federal law, which requires wholesale electricity markets to be open to all types of resources that can generate power or reduce demand, such as energy efficiency. All our rules are discussed and reviewed by stakeholders, including the Conservation Law Foundation, before being approved by our regulator.

Over the past two decades, this structure has led to a 40 percent reduction in carbon emissions on the power system as newer, more efficient and cost-effective natural gas plants caused coal and oil generators to retire. The next step in the evolution of the region’s power grid is underway. Renewable energy’s share of the power mix continues to grow each year as their costs decrease, and virtually all of the new resources currently proposed are either renewables or energy storage.

To suggest that we have not been laying the groundwork for renewable energy willfully ignores the work we have done over the past 15 years to enable these resources to become part of the region’s resource mix; in addition, we have developed new operational and market tools to address the specific needs of renewable energy facilities.

To reach the region’s ambitious climate goals, much work remains. ISO New England plays an important role in achieving these goals, but there are many other public and private players who have an equally important role. As policymakers look to the power grid to decarbonize the economy, the region is confronting difficult decisions on how to best move forward to achieve its clean energy future — one that is reliable and takes costs into consideration.

And as the recent heat dome covering Texas and the drought-induced wildfires threatening Yosemite National Park illustrate, extreme weather is becoming the norm, so we all must determine and, more importantly, follow through on strategies to best ensure the region has adequate energy available for periods when weather-dependent resources are unavailable.  

Adding to this challenge is the reality that building large energy projects in this region is difficult. Dating back to Cape Wind and Northern Pass, the region has seen fully funded large renewable energy projects felled by permitting and legal issues. More recently, offshore wind projects have faced delays, while the fate of a proposed transmission line here in Maine remains in doubt. That project would bring clean energy hydropower in from Canada, but was defeated by Maine voters, something the Conservation Law Foundation didn’t acknowledge in its commentary.

Ensuring the power system remains reliable as we decarbonize requires confronting hard truths and making tough choices. To fight climate change, New England needs a steady hand focused on a reliable clean energy transition, and we’re proud to play that role.