FERC has undertaken an ambitious agenda for this year that will face numerous headwinds from administrative challenges, not least of which remains the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
A panel of former FERC commissioners provided their insight into those challenges during a webinar hosted by the Energy Bar Association’s Northeast Chapter and moderated by RTO Insider co-publisher Rich Heidorn Jr.
At the top of FERC’s agenda is its Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on transmission planning and cost allocation. Chair Richard Glick said last week that he hopes to have a final rule out of the proceeding by the end of the year, but former Chair Joseph T. Kelliher, now an arbitrator with dispute resolution firm FedArb, was doubtful that could be achieved because of the scope of the docket. (See related story, Glick Aiming for Final Transmission Rule by End of Year.)
But former Commissioner Nora Mead Brownell, co-founder of consulting firm ESPY Energy Solutions, said that “given the current set of circumstances that we face ... it’s time to be bold. ... We are not really getting the environmental, economic or equity outcomes that meet the threshold that we’ve learned to expect. We have a transmission grid that is old; that is vulnerable; that is not achieving what we need to do to deliver a grid for the future.”
Among the practical challenges to reaching any final rule is a staffing shortage, she said. “There’s been an enormous amount of staff turnover; there’s lots of open positions. I think we all need to be arguing for increasing hiring. We need to be supporting the efforts to recruit people. And we need to give them the tools that they need in order to do the job.”
Another challenge remains the COVID-19 pandemic, which has kept commissioners and their staffs working remotely. Former Chair Neil Chatterjee, now senior adviser at Hogan Lovells, noted that Commissioner James Danly was confirmed by the Senate in early March 2020, just before Chatterjee transitioned the commission to telework as the pandemic began. Thus, Chatterjee had never held an open meeting in-person with Danly as a commissioner, nor did he with current commissioners Allison Clements and Mark Christie.
This week’s open meeting will mark two years since the commission last held an in-person open meeting. Chatterjee said that makes it difficult for commissioners and their staffs to get to know each other personally and, therefore, work toward consensus on controversial dockets. Glick had intended to resume limited in-person meetings, with only staff and members of the press in attendance, last year, but the surge in COVID cases from the Omicron variant of the virus delayed that plan.
On Wednesday, after his keynote speech at the National Association of State Energy Officials’ annual Energy Policy Outlook Conference, Glick told RTO Insider that, though he would like to resume in-person meetings “as soon as possible,” the case rate in D.C. is still too high.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, D.C.’s case rate per 100,000 residents as of Monday was 180.94; any rate above 100 is considered “high.” The district has reported an average of 182.4 cases a day over the past week.
“We’re all sort of adept at virtual communication these days, but so much is lost in that process,” Chatterjee said. “And when you’re trying to negotiate something as complex as reforming transmission policy, it’s hard to do it virtually.”
Finally, since the beginning of the Trump era of U.S. politics, the commission has seen a partisan divide in its decisions and debates that has alarmed many observers.
Chatterjee said that working virtually does not help heal that divide. Kelliher agreed, saying that filings constitute 85% of the commission’s workload, leaving the remainder of time for discretionary work, such as initiatives. But the commission has become less efficient processing filings, leaving less time to work on big issues, he said.
“When I was chairman, we’d meet every week, one on one, no staff, and we would talk about big things that are what I thought the commission had to act on in the next three months,” Kelliher said. “We wouldn’t do something big unless we knew, ‘What’s the center of gravity? And is this a productive exercise?’ And then once we knew, then the order would be written up, versus writing up an order, flinging it down the hallway virtually, and then seeing what the reaction is. It’s just much more efficient.”
Brownell said that partisanship may be the new normal, as “it’s a reflection of what’s happening in the larger world.”
Regarding the transmission ANOPR, she said, “I think it would be great if they could get to unanimity, but when you have people who may believe it’s their job just to disagree, maybe that’s just not possible in today’s world.”