New Moniz grid adviser could feel the heat on Capitol Hill and beyond

Source: Hannah Northey, E&E reporter • Posted: Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The Obama administration has found someone to fill the shoes of Lauren Azar, former Energy Secretary Steven Chu’s top adviser on greening the U.S. electric grid, who quietly left the agency Friday.

Skila Harris, who served as the Tennessee Valley Authority’s first female director and as a special assistant to former Vice President Al Gore, is now serving as senior adviser for the Power Marketing Administration. Although Department of Energy officials did not offer to comment about the personnel moves in time for publication, Harris will likely be tasked with addressing bipartisan backlash on Capitol Hill over a number of the agency’s programs.

She is jumping into the fray at a time when the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA), which provides about one-third of the electricity in the Pacific Northwest, is embroiled in controversy. In July, BPA’s top executive, Bill Drummond, was removed after an audit uncovered illegal hiring practices (Greenwire, July 16).

Earlier this month, a 2013 Human Capital Management Accountability Program audit found that hiring and promotion activities at BPA are “not effective and criticized BPA for a disregard for federal laws, a lack of knowledge, limited transparency and distrust between employees and management (Greenwire, Sept. 3).

Harris, a native of Kentucky, will also likely face the same criticisms that Azar did on Capitol Hill during hearings about a controversial memo Chu released last year, calling on the nation’s four power market administrations to invest in transmission upgrades and clean energy and to address cybersecurity — moves the lawmakers argued could hurt consumers.

Yesterday, House Natural Resources Chairman Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) and Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), the panel’s ranking member, warned current DOE Secretary Ernest Moniz in a letter that requiring BPA and the Western Area Power Administration (WAPA) to join a larger power market to better manage the swings of wind and solar power could cause electricity prices to spike.

The concept, called an “energy imbalance market,” is currently being studied by utilities across the West, following public studies by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, the Western Electricity Coordinating Council and the Northwest Power Pool.

The proposal stems from the memo Chu circulated last year on the four PMAs, which are tasked with marketing power from the dams and currently oversee more than 37,000 miles of transmission in 20 states.

Regional utilities have already begun studying the cost and benefits of creating such a market, which would allow utilities to manage power fluctuations that are more drastic when the wind doesn’t blow or the sun doesn’t shine. Grid operators would have the ability to pull in or provide power outside their designated planning area on a real-time basis.

Hastings and DeFazio acknowledged that the intent of such a market is to enable a centralized computer system to automatically reroute generation every five minutes to lower the cost of integrating renewables across the entire system, but said “some are finding that the operating costs … may outweigh the benefits.”

Another point of contention would arise if the program were subject to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s oversight, and the lawmakers called on Moniz to ensure a pending study is completed before any policy decisions are made.

“If an [energy imbalance market] is pursued, it must be done in a way that does not injure long-standing success in crafting regional solutions or lead to the formation of broader electricity market structures that have been repeatedly rejected in the Northwest,” they wrote.

Harris has been an independent consultant on energy issues for the past three years. Before that, she worked at DOE during both the Carter and Clinton administrations and served as the executive director of the Secretary of Energy Advisory Board.

From February 2009 to October 2010, Harris worked to implement programs at DOE using funds doled out through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. She was tapped by President Clinton to serve on TVA’s board of directors from 1999 to 2008 and served as the federally owned utility’s first female director.