Angela O’Connor Says Energy Experience is ‘Transferable’
By Michael Kuser
After serving a four-year term as chair of the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities, Angela O’Connor became a free agent last month — just like some of the basketball players she knew during her decade helping to market the Boston Celtics.
That job had her wearing a headset behind sportscaster Marv Albert and Los Angeles Lakers star Earvin “Magic” Johnson while she coordinated timeouts with referees.
Asked about the Lakers’ conspiracy theories regarding their “heated” locker room in Game 5 of the 1984 NBA Finals at the Boston Garden, when temperatures in the arena neared 100 degrees Fahrenheit, O’Connor said, “Whatever you heard, it was probably true.”
O’Connor, known as Angie to her friends, is more circumspect when it comes to her time at the DPU, crediting “incredible staff expertise” with helping her to run the agency “at the busiest time in its history.”
She is most proud of the work DPU did helping Gov. Charlie Baker position the state to procure Quebec hydropower and getting ISO-NE to become the first grid operator in the country to change its market rules to accommodate state procurement of clean energy contracts through Competitive Auctions with Sponsored Policy Resources (CASPR).
“That was a lot of work to try to convince folks, ‘you got to do this,'” O’Connor said. “And Massachusetts wasn’t doing it to crush a price because there’s a recognition that you can’t run the system on wind, solar, storage, fairy dust and unicorns. You need power plants to be able to back up those intermittent resources, tremendously flexible plants, and they are gas plants, largely.”
Private and Public
In all her regulatory work, O’Connor said she “wanted to make sure that whatever we did would not be a barrier to innovation. Massachusetts is a small state but a thought leader.”
Though she had no state government experience prior to her role at DPU, O’Connor was conscious of the need to work with public officials, having come to the job from being Northeast region executive director at TechNet, a trade association representing the technology industry to state and federal policymakers.
And she went to TechNet from the New England Power Generators Association, which she founded and where she served as president.
“It’s very different coming from the private sector into government,” she said. “We were the first state to regulate Uber and Lyft, known as transportation network companies or TNCs, which we started in 2015. People just didn’t associate that with DPU … but then we also oversee the [Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority] for public safety.
“It’s all about how you handle things, and all those skills are transferrable to other industries, but I do love energy,” O’Connor said.
She refuses to speak on the record about her toughest experience at DPU, overseeing the agency’s response to the Columbia Gas pipeline explosions around Lawrence last September, in which one person was killed and about two dozen others were injured. Her reticence around the incident — the largest such disaster in U.S. history that forced the evacuation of three towns — is because it is still under investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board and the DPU.
“I would like to add how proud I am of the work the team did to support the governor and [Energy Secretary Matthew Beaton’s] work on the ground, especially Pipeline [Safety] Division Director Richard Wallace,” O’Connor said.
“Regulation is like a black hole to some people in other industries,” O’Connor said. “They think, ‘We’re saving the planet, you don’t have to regulate us,’ which is not true. However, I came to appreciate that perspective because from the private sector, you want to get things done, but making good policy takes time.”
O’Connor once headed up energy policy at Associated Industries of Massachusetts (AIM), the commonwealth’s main statewide employer organization, a job she came to from managing operations for the Massachusetts Health and Educational Facilities Authority (MHEFA) PowerOptions program in the 1990s, which today is the largest energy-buying consortium in New England.
MHEFA was a bonding authority for colleges, universities and nonprofits, and after the move into energy aggregation, “we had under contract [more than] 500 MW of load, which was MIT, Harvard, Boston College, Northeastern, Mass. General Hospital … the Museum of Science [and] the Museum of Fine Arts,” she said.
“That was my first energy job, and I remember we also had Sister Mary Ruth and Little Sisters of the Poor,” O’Connor said. “We had a two-year contract with a one-year extension, or a five-year contract, and Little Sisters of the Poor was the same cost as Boston College or MIT. One little facility, but that was one price.”
Massachusetts went all-in on restructuring the electricity industry, she said.
“I really liked this energy thing, and [as] scary as it sounds, I liked the process of [the New England Power Pool]. I liked all the people around a table. I liked how do you figure things out, how do you bring consensus,” O’Connor said.
[NEPOOL voted in March to admit this RTO Insider correspondent as an End User member under strict rules that prevent the publication from reporting publicly on what he hears in meetings. O’Connor said she hopes FERC does the “right thing” in its ongoing proceeding over the matter and directs the organization to allow press to report on the meetings. (See RTO Insider Reporter Admitted to NEPOOL.)]
“Even though there were challenges, public service really is a privilege,” O’Connor concluded. “I remember when I was sworn in, [Baker] said that — over my four years I learned he was right — it truly is a privilege to serve the people of the Commonwealth and to give back. I have been blessed with a number of amazing jobs, and working for this administration was by far the best of all.”