It was a shocker.

Katie Dykes, Connecticut’s commissioner of the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, earlier this month got onboard with a two-year delay for a key component of her pet project — reforming the New England electric grid.

Definitely a shocker.

For nearly a decade, Dykes has railed against the operator of the grid, ISO-New England, and the way it purchases power, saying it hinders the build out of power generated by renewable energy. But after building regional momentum to change that dynamic, Dykes blinked.

Instead of ending a year from now, a key rule for acquiring future power for the grid will end three years from now, with agreement from Dykes.

Not that Dykes voted for the delay. But she didn’t vote against it either. “Not opposing” was the official disposition.

“It’s a long way from not opposing to supporting,” she explained several days after the decision.

But renewable energy advocates around the region are nothing short of appalled and point fingers straight at ISO-NE, which they say changed its mind at the very last minute and played an often-used trump card — that reliability of the grid would be at stake if the rule changed next year.

“As someone who has responsibility for meeting state policy goals and assuring that we’re doing so in an affordable, reliable way, I can’t just outright dismiss the ISO’s rationale for this preference, i.e., reliability,” Dykes said. “And that’s why we didn’t oppose.”

Francis Pullaro, executive director of RENEW Northeast, a group uniting renewable energy and environmental advocates, said the states were put in a difficult position.

“They don’t know what the ISO needs. They’re not looking at the system like the ISO is. I can be sympathetic to that. I have my own perspective,” he said. “No one’s going to call me if the system collapses, right? It’s a sensitive topic.”

Meet the MOPR

The rule in the cross-hairs is called the minimum offer price rule, universally referred to in the energy world as the MOPR.

Once a year, the ISO runs what’s called a forward capacity auction. It’s a low-price-wins auction to determine what generating resources will go into its Forward Capacity Market, the power it plans to have available three years in advance. It gives the ISO the security that power will be there, and it provides a commitment to potential new power sources so they can get financed and built.

The MOPR is a key component, setting the lowest price that a resource can offer in the forward capacity auction.

Mainly, the power projects want to recoup their construction costs. Many, if not most, renewable and clean energy resources have state-sponsored contracts and other sorts of subsidies, so part of those costs are already covered. But under the MOPR, they have to factor the entire cost into their bid, not just the uncovered portion.

The Tobacco Valley Solar Farm in Simsbury is currently the largest in Connecticut. File photo

Because renewable energy is still more expensive than traditional fossil fuel power — though costs are coming down — renewables are rarely chosen at auctions because they can’t bid low enough. Dykes advocates a broad overhaul of how the ISO runs the grid, but the MOPR comes in for particular criticism. She and others have argued repeatedly that the rule advantages natural gas, preventing states from meeting their renewable energy and greenhouse gas emissions mandates and costing ratepayers extra money.

A little more than two years ago, after threatening to pull out of the capacity market, Dykes corralled all the New England states into a group to map out reforms for the ISO. They called it the New England Energy Vision. First up was getting rid of the MOPR.

Discussions began in May of last year. At the table: the ISO; the states — through the New England States Committee on Electricity (NESCOE), which represents the six New England governors’ electricity interests; and dozens of other energy stakeholders through the advisory group the New England Power Pool — NEPOOL.

On Jan. 11, the NEPOOL markets committee approved ending the MOPR beginning with the capacity auction in February 2023. The committee also rejected a separate plan to delay it. That put the MOPR one vote away from termination.

About two weeks later, the ISO released a memo in advance of the final vote. The memo supported the plan offered by two fossil fuel power generators that would delay the end of MOPR until 2025, effectively putting off more meaningful and cost effective renewable energy entries to the grid until three years after that — 2028.

As someone who has responsibility for meeting state policy goals and assuring that we’re doing so in an affordable, reliable way, I can’t just outright dismiss the ISO’s rationale for this preference.

DEEP Commissioner Katie dykes

On Feb. 3, the NEPOOL participants committee went with that alternative, called a “transition,” by a narrow margin. The next day, Dykes, along with all the other NESCOE states except New Hampshire — which doesn’t want to get rid of MOPR at all — said it would not oppose the change.

Then all hell broke loose.

Outraged tweets, press releases and all manner of indignation ensued. Critics called it the ISO’s “eleventh-hour change,” accused the ISO of “turning on a dime” and labeled the move an “unnecessary lifeline to gas generators” and “anti-competitive.”

A letter sent by the Northeast Clean Energy Council, NECEC, to all six New England attorneys general called it “wholly out of step with climate action plans adopted by nearly every state in the New England region.”

“Given that this will have a chilling effect on the integration of renewable energy into the regional capacity market until 2028, it could have deleterious effects of reaching established 2030 climate goals,” the letter went on.

It also noted that it would disproportionately impact disadvantaged communities.

The letter asked that the AGs formally request the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, known as FERC, to reject the delay. FERC has final say on any change to the MOPR.

Another letter sent by dozens of advocates in the New England Offshore Wind Coalition to NESCOE took Dykes and her counterparts to task for not showing leadership, saying that New England “is falling behind other regions that have already moved to eliminate discriminatory market rules like the outdated MOPR.”

Much of the ire is focused on the ISO’s claims of reliability concerns. Clean energy advocates say the ISO didn’t specify what reliability problems would occur if there was no delay. And they say the states — especially Dykes, who has been leading the charge — should have pushed harder for that information.

They continue to criticize the ISO for its often-stated contention that fossil fuel generation, such as natural gas, is essential to ensure the grid has enough power. That assertion has been turned on its head in recent winters — including this one — when gas has been in short supply, bringing the risk that electricity supplies could be strained when gas is diverted for heating.

Reliability v. renewables

“We need to stop pitting reliability against clean energy,” said Jeremy McDiarmid, NECEC’s vice president for policy and government affairs. “We need to ask more of ISO than to just focus solely on reliability. Reliability matters, to be clear. But it’s not the only thing. And we need to find solutions to encourage the clean energy resources to come online while keeping the lights on at the same time.”

He said reverting to fossil fuel as the first reaction to any question about reliability on the part of the ISO has to end.

“I think that perspective misses the moment,” he said. “ISO needs to evolve. I think we don’t want this to be a battle between reliability and clean energy, because we firmly believe you can have both, and we need to ask ISO to do both.”

A recent study from Stanford University supports that belief. It finds “that all states and regions can maintain grid stability (avoid blackouts), despite variable and extreme weather, while providing 100% of their all-purpose energy” from wind, water and solar power plus energy storage.

Phelps Turner, a senior attorney with the Conservation Law Foundation pointed out that the changing technologies — energy storage and the ability to dispatch and move power quickly around the grid as needed — mean that renewables like solar that are considered intermittent and only suitable for daytime use can also provide reliability.

“We don’t see reliability and climate action as mutually exclusive,” he said. “The bigger issue is a system and a grid operator that is not evolving with the mandates of the states in terms of energy mix. I think that the MOPR episode is an example of that.”

Melissa Birchard, regulatory attorney for power grid reform at Acadia Center, said the ISO has a narrow view of reliability.

“By not pursuing reliable clean options, the ISO is limiting us to its old-fashioned and outdated perspective of reliability,” she said. “The states need to have a real conversation about that with the ISO.”

Dykes has had plenty of conversations with the ISO. And the MOPR situation brings up all the issues in them — unvarnished.

“You have to ask yourself: Who has confidence in the ISO-New England’s fragile capacity market and its ability to motivate sufficient investment in the resources that we need to keep the lights on year round today, let alone in 2030 or 2040? I don’t,” she said. “I share the frustrations that people have around the ISO kind of shifting its preference from an immediate end to the MOPR to a transition proposal coming up so late in the stakeholder process.”

But she added: “The important fundamental is that the MOPR is ending.”

But when?

A spokesman for the ISO disputed that the eight-month process that ended in the controversial transition had been solely focused on ending the MOPR for the 2023 capacity auction.

“When we first announced plans to begin a stakeholder process, we did say we would focus on the reliability of the system,” said Matt Kakley. “We went in with an open mind.”

He pointed to delays in the last few years for major renewable systems. New Hampshire and Maine have both turned down transmission projects to bring in additional hydropower from Canada. Offshore wind progressed at a snail’s pace during the Trump years, and there have been other slowdowns due to local communities fighting transmission connection hubs and multiple lawsuits from fishing interests.

“Resources that are retiring are on schedule, while new resources to replace them have had delays or cancellations,” he said. “We believe this is the best path forward.”

The transition plan does allow for a small amount of MOPR-exempt renewables in the next two capacity auctions, but Pullaro of RENEW said he can’t see how that or anything in the approved plan actually addresses reliability.

“It all comes back to if you need this delay, how does the delay keep us more reliable?” he said, pointing out that any resources coming in at any time could be delayed. “If you could get the same outcome by just eliminating the MOPR, how are we more reliable?”

The outcome will ultimately be up to FERC. The 60-day clock starts ticking when the ISO files the new plan with FERC, which it says it will do by early March. Advocates fighting the delay have been strategizing but won’t say what their plans are. At the very least, they will be able to file comments during the process.

FERC has a little more wiggle room than just saying yes or no. A flat no could leave the reform advocates in worse shape than they are now — going back to square one, while stuck with the existing system.

Ari Peskoe, director of the Electricity Law Initiative at the Environmental and Energy Law Program at Harvard Law School, said FERC was unlikely to just say no.

“It could find the current approach unjust and unreasonable under federal law and tell ISO-New England what the just and reasonable approach must be and then order ISO-New England to comply,” Peskoe said. “All that would take more time, but there is a path for FERC to reject what is going to be filed and effectively order ISO to file what was narrowly rejected.”

FERC could also say it needs more time to decide and/or ask for additional hearings. Peskoe also thinks the ISO is probably prepared if FERC comes back and orders them to submit an immediate termination of the MOPR.

That’s not out of the realm of possibility, given that FERC has had a political makeover since the Biden administration came in. Democratic commissioners outstrip Republicans 3-2 (no more than three from any party is allowed). And the new chairman, Democrat Richard Glick, along with at least one other commissioner, Allison Clements, are forcefully on-the-record for ending the MOPR.

“The MOPR appears to act as a barrier to competition, insulating incumbent generators from having to compete with certain new resources that may be able to provide capacity at lower cost,” they wrote in a recent opinion.

“It is time for ISO New England to move beyond the MOPR.”

FERC is already working with two other ISOs — New York and the 13-state PJM — to end their MOPRs.

“I’m relieved that we have leadership at FERC and a path that ensures that, one way or the other, this practice is going to end,” Dykes said. “It’s the ISO’s burden to make that case to FERC — that those reliability concerns are justified.”

“It’s not the fault of renewables that we have this reliability risk, it’s the fault of the ISO-New England’s broken market construct,” she said. “What we’re going to be asking for is to ensure that the MOPR ends in a clear and decisive manner. That’s what we’ve been seeking all along.”

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Jan Ellen is CT Mirror's regular freelance Environment and Energy Reporter. As a freelance reporter, her stories have also appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, Yale Climate Connections, and elsewhere. She is a former editor at The Hartford Courant, where she handled national politics including coverage of the controversial 2000 and 2004 presidential elections. She was an editor at the Gazette in Colorado Springs and spent more than 20 years as a TV and radio producer at CBS News and CNN in New York and in the Boston broadcast market. In 2013 she was the recipient of a Knight Journalism Fellowship at MIT on energy and climate. She graduated from the University of Michigan and attended Boston University’s graduate film program.