Cheryl A. LaFleur, a former National Grid executive, is about halfway through a four-year term on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or FERC, an independent agency that regulates the interstate transmission of natural gas, oil, and electricity. The New England native recently spoke with Globe reporter Erin Ailworth about electric deregulation, the region’s increasing use of natural gas, and how her local roots influence her work with the commission.
New technologies have made it much easier to drill for natural gas in large shale rock formations throughout the country, including the Marcellus in Pennsylvania. How is that boom affecting New England, as well as the rest of the United States?
Compared to the traditional sources of gas in the Gulf and Western Canada, the Marcellus is quite close. Because of the cost, because of the desire to use a cleaner fuel, we’ve seen a lot of natural gas being used for [electricity] generation.
Many New England households — about 25 percent — use natural gas for heating purposes. Is the region’s growing dependency on natural gas for heat and power a concern for FERC?
It’s one of the bigger issues because the electric and natural gas systems are dependent on each other. We’ll continue to need fuel diversity beyond natural gas.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission recently renewed the operating license for Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station. Where do you see nuclear power fitting into the region’s energy needs in the future?
I would be very hesitant to predict new nuclear in New England. It’s a piece of the puzzle — it’s one piece — but I don’t think New England is where most people are looking for new nuclear to go.
You’ve said the deregulation of New England’s electricity markets has helped create more transparency and prompt investment in the region’s power grid, and promoted the use of demand-response technologies that pay people not to use power at times of peak demand. But you’ve said there’s still work to do. Why?
Having a market system has allowed a lot of this to happen. [But with only some regions deregulated] we have created a very complex ecosystem. I do think markets work, but we thought it would happen faster and happen everywhere. In the places we do have markets, they’re still evolving and improving.
You’ve said now is a good time to be a part of the energy industry. Why?
Every decade, there’s something cool. It was rocket science in the ’60s, then computers and dot-coms. Energy is finally cool. Partly it’s because of the new technologies, [like] the application of computer technologies to the grid — the so-called smart grid. Then we have the renewables and extraction technologies. We’re seeing a technological injection into energy that we haven’t seen in decades.
What are the challenges for FERC as the nation increases its use of renewable energy sources such as wind and solar, which only generate power when the wind is blowing or the sun is shining?
Renewables — whether it’s wind, hydro, or solar — have different characteristics than a fossil fuel plant that you can turn on and off. So a lot of our work is, first of all, making sure that transmission can get built [to handle the additional resources] and then making sure the facilities are used to sustain reliability.
You were born in Arlington. Outside of a few years in college and this stint in Washington, you have lived most of your life in Massachusetts. How do your New England roots influence your work at the commission?
I’m the only commissioner at FERC right now from east of the Mississippi. It’s in my DNA, my history, the way we look at things here, so I try to bring that to bear in Washington.
Erin Ailworth can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @ailworth.