Mark Mühlhaus / Windwärts Energie GmbH

In what appears to be an abrupt about-face, the head of the New England power grid is insisting that green energy, solar, and wind are central to his organization’s mission.

Gordon van Welie, CEO of ISO-New England, asserting that a prime pillar of his organization is renewable energy is welcome news. After considerable public pressure from the six states it serves, ISO seems to be indicating there should be a bigger role for renewable sources of power. But the question remains: what do van Welie and his energy bureaucracy intend to actually do to support more renewables?

While ISO may be obscure, its crucial role in helping the region cut carbon and fight climate change is clear: it is the non-profit agency overseeing the operation of the power grid for Connecticut and the five other New England states. ISO is funded with money from our electric bills, operates behind closed doors, and has ample input from utility companies. The organization determines what is needed for New England to keep the lights on, sets the price for electricity, and plans the future of the region’s electric system. Those three pillars were, until very recently, ISO’s self-described mission.

Now, though, not only have renewables been placed in the mix by van Welie, but they’ve also been pushed to the top of his list of priorities.

There is arguably no more important question in the world of electric generation than how we power our homes, cars, and businesses in a way prevents climate change from getting worse. But for ISO, it has simply not been a determining factor for their operations – and that has led to bad policy decisions that hold back construction of solar and wind energy projects.

Allowing wind and solar power to compete with fossil fuels to provide backup power during peak demand periods would be a major step in the right direction. Unfortunately, ISO recently postponed that effort for two years. Simply put, ISO picked gas over green energy and threw a wrench in the affordability of new wind and solar projects. They once again claim, erroneously, that we’d all face blackouts if we didn’t stay shackled to fossil fuels.

This decision came despite a request by all six New England states that ISO immediately start considering climate ramifications in the decisions it makes managing the electric grid.

This decision also comes during a month when the United Nations issued a comprehensive report on the damage already being done by climate change — rising seas, drought, extreme weather, famine, and the spread of infectious diseases — along with a warning that these events will only increase in frequency and severity as we move into the future.

The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported that rising temperatures in the waters off New England have already begun to alter the region’s fishing industries, and extreme storms are already showing up more frequently. There is no room in this scenario to postpone action, like ISO just did.

Katie Dykes, Connecticut’s commissioner of the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, had been a key leader in the fight to get ISO to step up on climate and step back on fossil fuels. Unfortunately, when it came time to vote  against the two-year delay, Dykes took a pass. She agreed, as did other state energy leaders, that they had to respect ISO’s claim that blackouts could ensue without continued dependence on fossil fuels. Except that’s never happened in New England.

But now ISO appears to be opening a door to change. Van Welie needs to be held to his word for his recent assertion that renewable energy is one of ISO’s priorities. Dykes and other New England energy officials need to call ISO back to the table and find out how it plans to actually make good on its prioritization of renewables.

If ISO’s words do not lead to action, Dykes and other leaders need to demand that ISO add a new person from each New England state to its board so climate change considerations can be officially added to the grid operator’s mission. If ISO does not want to open its charter to add six new members, each state should begin hearings on changes to that charter.

We should take van Welie at his word, but we need to be sure he holds true to his words. Empty promises and bold proclamations won’t do anything in the face of climate change – it’s time for action, now.

Shannon Laun is a staff attorney at Conservation Law Foundation Connecticut.