Top FERC aide outlines priorities to state regulators

Source: Rod Kuckro, E&E News reporter • Posted: Wednesday, July 18, 2018

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — A senior adviser to the nation’s top energy regulator says his boss is taking a deliberative, record-based approach to the top challenges facing the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which he leads.

“I’m from the government, and I’m here to help,” Travis Fisher, who advises FERC Chairman Kevin McIntyre, said to laughter from attendees at a breakfast here yesterday sponsored by the Consumer Energy Alliance during the summer meeting of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners. “No, that is what I’m trying to deliver” on behalf of FERC, he said.

McIntyre has three clear priorities, Fisher said — resilience, infrastructure and reform of the Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act (PURPA).

“Every time the chairman speaks, the top priority is resilience. Some of that is coming over from [the Department of Energy], and some of that is his own review of the record in front of us,” Fisher said.

After FERC early this year rejected a request from Energy Secretary Rick Perry to subsidize coal and nuclear power plants, the commission launched its own broad inquiry into the resilience of regional transmission grids (Energywire, Jan. 9).

Fisher came to FERC from DOE, where he oversaw a staff report that pointed to natural gas as the leading driver of coal plant closures this decade. That report was used as the basis for Perry’s request that FERC rejected (E&E News PM, April 2).

“We are going through all the comments and taking a deep dive on that issue” to “sort out what is appropriate for us to act on,” Fisher said of the resilience inquiry at FERC.

“Some folks have asked, ‘With all the stuff coming out of DOE, is FERC still working on this issue; is this still a top priority?’ Yes, it’s still a top priority.

“We want to develop the record,” Fisher said.

Commissioners are “trying to reach a common understanding” on things such as a definition of resilience and “what exactly are we talking about?” he said.

In the “resilience space,” Fisher said, “a whole lot [is] happening at the distribution level, and we recognize that that’s a state issue.”

“We’re not going for a one-size-fits-all solution; I don’t think FERC has a silver bullet,” he said.

An open question is “what steps and at what point FERC will need to take action, because it was unclear at the point of the Jan. 8 action that it was imperative that we act within our statutory authority,” Fisher said.

FERC facing ‘incredible’ volume of work on gas infrastructure

The surfeit of natural gas being produced in the United States through hydraulic fracturing advances has caused a spike in proposals for pipelines and liquefied natural gas terminals.

Right now, there are 15 LNG projects requiring FERC approval, 13 of which are for export facilities, Fisher said. By contrast, there was but one application before the agency in 2011.

“So the volume of work is incredible. We need to take steps to get moving and adjust to that new world; I can assure you we’re doing everything we can to speed it up. When the volume [of applications] was lower, it was a simpler process,” he said.

FERC splits responsibility with review of LNG projects with DOE, which evaluates economic need while FERC looks at potential environmental and safety impacts.

“One of the hurdles is getting the right personnel to do the right analysis — who can do the modeling on where spills [could] go, where might they ignite — it’s very complicated stuff,” Fisher said, adding that another hurdle is that there are some “who don’t necessarily want us to be doing this work.”

To handle the extra work, FERC is looking at using hiring authorities it has not used in the past, he said. There also is “some conversation about under what scenarios it would it be acceptable to hire a third party and how exactly would that work.”

According to Fisher, McIntyre believes “it’s a completely different world than it was in 1978,” when Congress enacted PURPA after oil prices skyrocketed in the wake of the 1973 Arab oil embargo. The statute aimed to encourage conservation, more reliance on domestic energy sources and, in particular, renewable energy technologies.

That is why McIntyre in May launched a new review of the law, Fisher said (Energywire, May 18).

“I can’t say exactly what we’re going to do, how we’re to act on PURPA,” Fisher said. But, he said, “we owe it to folks to re-evaluate these things as the facts on the ground change.”

FERC held a technical conference in 2016 on PURPA reforms, and that docket is still open, he said, noting that the Edison Electric Institute has recently submitted comments on possible changes. “We do read them,” he said, urging others to weigh in.

Trying to repair perceived inequities in how state and regional power markets operate is another issue facing FERC.

“An important thing for this chairman is to review all the facts, not to prejudge anything and not to go into it knowing what the outcome is,” Fisher said.

“It’s an incredibly tough problem. If you’re a large nuclear plant or large coal plant, it’s not pretty out there. We need to acknowledge that.

“There’s a line there where we can’t touch what states are doing. I don’t think there’s any appetite to change that approach per se. We’re trying to do what we can to fix the markets,” he said.

But “you know it’s not FERC’s job to figure out an ideal [generation] resource mix,” he said.

Bruce Walker, DOE’s assistant secretary for electricity, was slated to give a morning keynote to NARUC attendees and have an ensuing dialogue with members on electricity and natural gas issues.

But Walker ran into travel snags and had to cancel. Instead, he sent remarks recorded on his cellphone pledging a collaborative relationship with state regulators, especially on combating physical and cyber threats to critical infrastructure and national security.