FERC Has More Work to Do


San Francisco        The headlines were clear.  There is finally going to be a new federal rule that prods the vast network of utility companies that produce and transmit the power to business and homes across the country to make and begin to implement long term plans to upgrade the US electricity grid.

Like much of the underlying infrastructure in America, the electric grid is outdated, but unlike a lot of other infrastructure needs like bridges and highways, this situation is at the heart of the fight to deal with climate change for two primary reasons.  The first is that many of the modern technological advances depend on more power, not less and are putting huge strains on the existing grid.  Think cloud computing, artificial intelligence, electric cars and more.  The second reason is that the movement to alternative energy sources is being delayed because some of these power sources are unable to connect to the grid, because it was designed for other forms of transmission, not wind and solar.  The whole system is also a patchwork with two main interconnected grids, between east and west, and one troubling and often fragile grid that is all about Texas, which we have seen collapse several winters ago.

The new rule from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission or FERC, as it’s known, seeks to confront this issue and make it easier for wind and solar companies to speed their development and access the grid.  The vote was split on party lines, and, interestingly, the Republican “no” vote argued the new rule was all about companies and not enough about consumers.

This is a case where he may be right, but for the wrong reason.  Nowhere in these applauding stories about the political handiwork that won this climate change rule or the impact of the rule itself does it mention that FERC is pivotal in dealing with rural electric cooperatives, which provide 15% of the total energy supply to more than half of the US land area.  One of the little known, but critical climate fights is pushing cooperatives towards more alternative fuel sources.  The obstacle is absolutely the lack of real democratic representation and diversity in these ostensibly membership-run cooperative enterprises, but it is also the minimal oversight that FERC has played over the RECs, despite its mandate to set “just and reasonable” wholesale electricity prices.  The huge generating and transmission coops that supply much of the energy distributed by local coops often have twenty- and thirty-year contracts for coal and other sources.  Individual coops that have tried to break these combines have to depend on FERC to set the exit price and ease the pathway to alternative fuels, and that’s often a huge fight given the stagnant and stultified structures at every level of inbred and industry-dominated coop governance.

If FERC is having a moment in the sun on these new rules, it would be a cause for huge celebration as well if FERC came out of the shadows and did the hard work of helping move rural electric cooperatives out of the dark age of climate change resistance as well.