Sustainable FERC's Clements discusses state, federal regulatory relationship as industry transforms

As new sources of energy are integrated onto the grid, what is the relationship among distributed energy resources, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and state regulatory agencies? During today's OnPoint, Allison Clements, director of the Sustainable FERC Project at the Natural Resources Defense Council, discusses the evolving dynamics between federal and state regulators as policies and technologies change.


Monica Trauzzi: Hello and welcome to OnPoint. I'm Monica Trauzzi. With me today is Allison Clements, director of the Sustainable FERC Project at the Natural Resources Defense Council. Allison, thank you for coming on the show.

Allison Clements: Thanks for having me.

Monica Trauzzi: Allison, talk a bit about what the Sustainable FERC Project was created to do and the role that it is playing in the conversation on the grid's current transformation.

Allison Clements: Sure. We are a coalition of national and regional clean-energy-focused nonprofit organizations hoping to break down the federal regulatory barriers to our communities' clean energy goals. And that means whatever is happening at FERC, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which regulates our nation's transmission grid -- because it was designed in 1935, this grid, there's a lot of things that haven't caught up to the type of resource mix we see today, the clean wind power and solar power that are coming onto the grid at a rapid clip. And so what we're trying to do is make the rules that govern the grid fair for those clean energy resources.

Monica Trauzzi: And you have a lot of states moving to act when it comes to clean energy and sometimes that sort of goes against what FERC is trying to do. Describe the relationship there and sort of what you see as the key challenges.

Allison Clements: Sure. I think we're going through a time of growing pains, but it's a really exciting period of growing pains in terms of the pace at which our nation's electric system is changing. And if you think about -- there's a statute that regulates that grid. It's called the Federal Power Act. It was written in 1935, right? That was when there was kind of one transmission line, one big power plant that spewed out emissions, and then a series of homes that needed to get power. That's the outdated, old grid. All of a sudden now in the last decade we're seeing what has become kind of this ecosystem grid where customers apply energy through their cars and through their rooftops, and where big, beautiful, clean wind turbines are providing power to our homes and businesses. And so as a result, the states and the federal government have to kind of grow together and figure out the parameters, if you will, of who is regulating what. And so we've seen a series -- a couple of court cases where -- that these kind of issues are playing out.

Monica Trauzzi: So how does the Supreme Court decision in the Maryland case earlier this spring affect future planning by states?

Allison Clements: You know, the good news for states on that case is that it doesn't affect the ability of states to continue to pursue their own clean energy agendas. It actually provides a set of parameters by which they should go about that clean energy policy design in order to avoid some of the pitfalls that the Maryland program fell victim to vis-à-vis the Federal Power Act.

Monica Trauzzi: So I know that you have a series of blogs that you're working on specifically focused on distributed energy resources and the relationship with FERC and the regulated grid. What are the primary issues that you see under that umbrella?

Allison Clements: A lot of the discussion around kind of the exciting changes that are taking places in our sector, which is rooftop solar, electric vehicles, energy storage, you know, you -- smart buildings, are happening at the kind of local utility level. There's a lot of exciting things happening in New York, in California, and in a lot of other states who are trying to kind of think forward about what our future energy companies and the systems around them look like. There's also a relationship which is kind of less documented and becoming more relevant about the relationship between these distributed resources and customers and the bulk transmission system. So for example, you know, as a neighborhood of homes with smart air conditioners or smart pool pumps, you actually can participate in wholesale energy markets. And understanding that relationship and the impact that customers can have and that distributive resources can have on our transmission system, both in terms of cost savings, reliability services and emission-free power, are pretty interesting intersections that I'm looking at right now.

Monica Trauzzi: So a program like the Clean Power Plan, what kind of impact does that have in your view on the jurisdictional issues that exist between FERC and the states?

Allison Clements: I think that just like the Federal Power Act, the Clean Air Act has that relationship of collaborative federalism between states and the federal government. And states have the opportunity to implement the Clean Power Plan in a lot of ways. I think we say they'd be wise to consider the kind of cost-effective and clean opportunities that happen at that local level, at that customer level to contribute to Clean Power Plan compliance.

Monica Trauzzi: One of the core challenges to integrating new sources of energy onto the grid is siting and building the transmission that will support the newer technologies. There have been calls from both sides to change the siting process, to look at it. Some want it to -- the speed to be ramped up. Do you think that the process is in line with rapidly changing state and federal policies?

Allison Clements: That's a great question, and siting happens at the state level in a lot of cases, and so every state has the ability to kind of dictate their own destiny with regards to what type of transmission poles and wires they want to put out, or new power plants they want to put in. And I think we've made a lot of progress on the siting front. The good news is that you're already seeing in the country -- in Texas, in California, in the Midwest -- moments where 50 percent of the energy being generated is coming from renewable energy resources already -- no more changes, no more siting. And so that's an exciting development that shows we can integrate a whole lot more renewables onto the system without necessarily getting into protracted siting debates.

Monica Trauzzi: All right, we're going to end it right there.

Allison Clements: All right.

Monica Trauzzi: Thank you so much for coming on the show.

Allison Clements: Thanks for having me.

Monica Trauzzi: And thanks for watching. We'll see you back here tomorrow.

[End of Audio]



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