FERC chairman defends record on clean energy

Source: By Arianna Skibell and David Iaconangelo, E&E News reporters • Posted: Thursday, September 10, 2020

Republican Federal Energy Regulatory Commission Chairman Neil Chatterjee defended his agency’s track record on renewable energy yesterday and suggested he may move to boost distributed resources like rooftop solar.

“I’m proud of what the commission has done under my tenure to remove barriers to entry for new technologies, to create a regulatory ecosystem that allows innovative clean energy technologies to thrive,” Chatterjee said yesterday during the American Council on Renewable Energy’s virtual finance summit.

“It really does frustrate me when people look at our actions to preserve markets as being hostile to any particular fuel source,” he said.

The commission came under fire late last year when it issued an order that upended how state-backed energy resources could compete in capacity markets run by PJM Interconnection LLC, the nation’s largest grid operator.

Opponents said that move would hurt states’ ability to direct their electricity mix toward more renewable or nuclear energy, and some states are now weighing a market exit. The commission argued that the changes were needed to ensure that competitive markets were not suppressed by any individual state’s policy goals.

In a separate virtual event, Chatterjee touted the commission’s 2018 rulemaking to remove hurdles in competitive power markets for storage technologies like batteries, calling it the “single most important act” the commission could take to “ensure a smooth transition to a clean energy future.”

He said while he didn’t want to “get ahead of” his colleagues, a similar rulemaking geared at distributed energy resources like rooftop solar would “only build on” the storage rule.

“I’ve always been someone who’s been excited about new technologies and incorporates those and removes barriers to entry,” he told a virtual audience at the Edison Electric Institute’s leadership summit in a conversation with Philip Moeller, EEI’s executive vice president of the business operations group and regulatory affairs.

Chatterjee said it was Democratic Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island and Ed Markey of Massachusetts who first highlighted for him the idea of making power markets more accommodating to new technologies like rooftop solar and batteries. He said that in 2017, the climate hawk pair was holding up his Senate confirmation process.

“Whitehouse and Markey pulled me aside,” Chatterjee recalled. “They didn’t ask me to make a commitment or take any particular action, but they asked that I take a hard look at storage and [distributed energy resources].”

He said that when he reflects on the storage rule, “it may be the thing I’m most proud of.”

Political calculations

Chatterjee’s comments come as proponents of clean energy look with some trepidation toward Election Day in November, after which climate policy could shift significantly in one way or another.

The energy consultancy Wood Mackenzie has recently highlighted the stakes of the presidential elections in a pair of reports. One projected that a Biden loss would make it all but impossible to decarbonize the power grid before 2050, while the second estimated that Biden’s favored policies would result in well over 5 million additional electric vehicle sales over the next decade (Greenwire, Sept. 1).

At ACORE’s renewable finance summit yesterday, former Obama EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy noted the “stark difference” between Biden’s and Trump’s climate policies.

Now the president and CEO of the Natural Resources Defense Council, McCarthy criticized FERC decisions that she said would increase subsidies to fossil fuel companies at the expense of consumers. “We have to fix the system that is keeping fossil fuels on top each and every time,” she said. “Let’s get real about this stuff: The system is not working right.”

If Democrats were to capture the Senate and White House, she said, “that’s when the debate about what to do [about decarbonizing] comes up.”

Carlos Curbelo, a former Republican House member from Florida who sat in on the same ACORE panel as McCarthy, gave a more sanguine version of what the next Congress would bring on energy policy, saying he sees a “clear and irreversible trend” among lawmakers toward climate action.

If Biden were elected and Democrats took control of both congressional chambers, Curbelo said, he hopes they would try to win passage of renewable legislation with support from the seven Republican members of the Climate Solutions Caucus, rather than through a narrower party-line vote.

The latter risks causing a backlash of the kind seen in the Obama stimulus package, warned Curbelo. “The last thing we need is to take a big step on climate and take big steps backward,” he said.

“I know there are Senate Republicans who are in a good place and willing to be constructive,” he added.

Curbelo, who now runs the public affairs and communications firm Vocero LLC, also derided President Trump’s decision to reverse his position and propose banning offshore drilling off the coast of Florida.

Trump’s attacks on renewable energy have proved him to be “an enemy” of those industries, Curbelo added.

“It’s obviously politically motivated,” he said of the offshore drilling ban. “We’ll take it as good news for Florida, but the bottom line is, the president hasn’t been a friend of renewable energy and has essentially promoted carbon pollution.”