Last fall, in between meetings about how to stop coal trains destined for the region’s last coal-burning plant, a group of climate activists quietly turned their attention to another, perhaps less obvious, pursuit: Getting elected en masse to an arcane group affiliated with ISO-New England, the region’s power grid operator.
In late November, roughly 100 members of No Coal No Gas showed up at a meeting of the Consumer Liaison Group, successfully electing six members to its governing committee.
The short-term goal was to earn some level of access to ISO-New England — a famously opaque entity that plays a critical role in determining whether the region can meet its emission-reduction targets. The consumer group doesn’t have any real power to influence the grid, but it does have a guaranteed audience with ISO-New England four times a year.
The long-term goal? To try and force the grid operator to act more ambitiously on climate — hewing more closely to the emissions goals of most New England states — while also becoming more transparent about its policy decisions.
They’re not the only ones putting the grid operator in their sights. Increasingly, climate activists, clean energy advocates, and legislators across the region are taking aim at ISO-New England, claiming the grid operator is dragging its feet on clean energy.
They argue that many of the state’s efforts to dramatically cut emissions — like enticing large numbers of drivers to switch to electric vehicles and homeowners to convert to electric heat — won’t make much difference if the grid continues to be largely powered by fossil fuels.
That was the motivation behind the 2019 launch of a “Fix the Grid” campaign by several activist groups demanding more and faster clean energy. The campaign is aimed at ousting ISO-New England’s leadership and requiring the grid operator to have representatives from each New England state on its board while increasing public participation in grid decisions.
“As things stand right now, ISO-New England is not being a very good partner to the states in facilitating the meeting of their climate goals,” said Mireille Bejjani co-executive director of the activist group Slingshot who helped the group No Coal No Gas identify activists to get elected to the ISO-New England group. “Right now, our grid system is part of the problem.”
ISO-New England is the federally authorized, not-for-profit entity that’s charged with three jobs: coordinating and directing the flow of electricity across the region; designing and operating the electricity markets; and planning to make sure the region’s energy needs are met. It is paid for by ratepayers.
The grid operator is adamant that it is moving as quickly as it can to bring renewable energy online, but that it must do so in a way that doesn’t hurt the reliability of the grid or force fossil fuel plants to shut down before there are sufficient clean sources to replace them. But advocates, legislators, and activists say ISO-New England could be doing more to speed the transition.
They say that without more aggressively pursuing clean energy policies, the grid operator could wind up holding back the ambitious emissions plans of Massachusetts and other New England states.
“ISO is putting its thumb on the scale to choose fossil fuel-fired resources in the name of reliability,” said Amy Boyd, vice president of climate and clean energy policy for Acadia Center, a clean-energy advocacy group. “The people’s interest in having climate goals met shouldn’t have to run at cross purposes to their interest in keeping the lights on. We can do both of these things at once.”
That impression was reinforced early last year after ISO-New England delayed its planned removal of a market rule created to help insulate fossil fuel power plants from having to compete against wind and solar generators, which are cheaper in part because of state programs and subsidies. There were protests across the region and letters from New England governors and US senators to the federal regulator that oversees ISO-New England, asking it to intervene.
At an annual ISO-New England board meeting opened to the public for the first time last fall, activists and advocates harangued board members and accused the grid operator of failing on its climate obligations.
But little seemed to change. So, the activists behind the No Coal No Gas campaign decided to organize and gain access to the consumer group.
In some ways it was a shallow victory. The Consumer Liaison Group was created to provide a forum for customers to better understand issues that concern them, including changes to the energy grid, but it has little power to directly influence ISO-New England.
But activists said it’s the closest the public can come to directly accessing the grid operator.
“It’s kind of the only portal between ratepayers and the ISO for information flow and communication,” said Nathan Phillips, an environmental scientist at Boston University and a climate activist who was among the activists elected to the Consumer Liaison Group’s coordinating committee.
Unlike grid operators in other parts of the country, ISO-New England deliberates and makes most of its important decisions about energy markets behind closed doors, at meetings of a members-only stakeholder group that are out of view of public scrutiny. That group, called New England Power Pool, or NEPOOL, consists of more than 500 interests representing a wide range of interests, from power plant owners and suppliers to municipal light departments, and also include a substantial consumer presence, mostly large industrial interests whose focus has historically been on electrical reliability and affordability.
Members of the public, while technically allowed to attend, must be invited by a member of the group and approved by its law firm, according to Tyson Slocum, director of the energy program at Public Citizen, a consumer advocacy organization.
Media are not allowed to cover the meetings unless they become members, and even then they are not allowed to quote from the meetings without approval. Just one news source — the industry publication RTO Insider — is a member.
“The barriers to entry and restrictions on public access and the press prevent broader public participation and inhibit members of the public from being informed about key ISO-NE decisions,” representatives from several clean energy advocacy groups, wrote in a joint comment in 2021.
The barriers to information and the complexity of the bureaucracy sometimes feel intentional, said Marla Marcum, cofounder of the Climate Disobedience Center and a No Coal No Gas organizer. “It’s one of the walls that keeps out people who can’t spend all of their time trying to understand grid operation and regulation,” she said.
As members of the Consumer Liaison Group’s coordinating committee, the newly elected activists can request information from ISO-New England and ask that it be presented at its quarterly meetings. But ISO is not required to comply.
Anne George, ISO-New England’s vice president of external affairs and corporate communications, said that she expects the agenda set by the new members of the Consumer Liaison Group coordinating committee will have an impact at the grid operator. “While they may not be voting on any proposals in particular, the information they provide, the things they want to talk about, those are things that we will be able to take in and hopefully address at the end of the day,” she said.
George said she — and ISO-New England — welcomed the presence of the activists on the group. “You know, we may never agree on the pace to which things happen, but I think if we all sit down and talk to each other, we can understand that we’re working in the same direction that they want us to go,” she said.