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New England’s electric grid operator opened its doors to public participation — and got a dressing down

Utility lines in Pownal, Maine.Robert F. Bukaty/Associated Press

New England’s electric grid operator has been famously closed to the public, with most decisions happening behind closed doors, with little or no public input.

On Tuesday, yielding to years of pressure, the board of ISO New England opened its doors for the first of what it says will be an annual open meeting. What followed was an hour-long dressing down, as speaker after speaker took the grid operator to task for failing to adequately respond to the climate crisis.

“The board has followed a consistent policy of favoring electric power produced by fossil fuel burning plants, especially natural gas, in the name of reliability,” said Monte Pearson, a member of the activist group 350 Mass.

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The excoriating tone was not entirely unexpected, said board chair Cheryl LaFleur.

“If they were happy with the ISO, they might not have come to the meeting,” she said. But what did surprise her was that, in a year when New England residents are facing record-high natural gas prices due to market impacts from the war in Ukraine, the commenters were laser-focused on climate.

“We certainly share that passion, because adapting the system, both the markets and the transmission grid, to climate change is at the center of the projects the ISO is working on,” she said.

But while that effort may be underway, many who spoke on Tuesday said it’s not happening fast enough.

Several pointed to the fact that ISO-NE continues to operate a coal plant in New Hampshire and that it failed to make a change in its market rules that, climate advocates say, would have made it easier for large-scale solar and wind generators to join the grid.

Like other regional power suppliers, New England’s grid operator had been asked by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which regulates grid operators, to make that change in its so-called minimum offer price rule, which effectively governs who can bid to supply electricity.

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But after months of saying it would, ISO-NE reversed course in January and aligned with a proposal from the natural gas industry that put off the change for at least two years. The move ignited protests and pleas from Massachusetts’ congressional delegation for intervention from the energy commission. No such intervention came.

“Over a year ago, we were told that ISO-NE would be submitting a proposal to FERC to take care of the minimum offer price rule,” said Salem activist Jim Mulloy. “And yet what happened earlier this year? What are we to think? What are we citizens to think, looking at what goes on with some decisions like this?”

Amanda Nash, an activist with the climate advocacy groups No Coal, No Gas and 350 Mass, said she appreciated that the public was invited to participate in the meeting. “It’s been a struggle to engage with you all, and many of our people have spent countless hours trying to parse and understand your rules,” she said, noting that while the ISO-NE board is trained and paid to create and administer the policies, concerned members of the public have to try to understand the complex systems, programs, and acronyms on top of day jobs and other obligations. “It seems like obfuscation is the name of the game,” she said.

When she and others have tried to engage, she said, via written comments or stakeholder group meetings, they find their voices are not welcome, Nash said. “Each time, we’re shut out. The decisions made are contrary to our interests, as well as to state emissions goals and grid transition recommendations,” she said. “When we do manage to engage, we’re told our proposals are unrealistic.”

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In addition to the lack of transparency, Hank Webster, the Rhode Island director of the clean energy advocacy group Acadia Center, said ISO-NE needs to better align itself with the climate policies of the states it represents. Many of the states call for achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, but without coordination with the regional grid, it will be hard to reach those goals.

“State policy and consumer concerns remain without a regular home in the ISO New England process and decisions,” Webster said.

After the public comment period came to a close, the board moved to other business, including a presentation by ISO-NE chief executive Gordon van Welie about how the grid aims to transition to clean energy.

Suddenly there was a disturbance.

The Rev. Kendra Ford, a New Hampshire-based minister and climate activist, who had testified earlier about the urgency of the climate crisis, stood and started talking, continuing despite being told the public comment period was over.

“I am begging you to respond to the emergency,” she said to the board, her voice rising. “It may not be affecting you personally in this moment, but it’s coming. And I’m begging you to change.”

Some in the room started clapping. The board used the moment to pivot to a pre-planned break.

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Sabrina Shankman can be reached at sabrina.shankman@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @shankman.