Portland, Maine. Credit: Kathryn Krawczyk / Energy News Network

Reprinted from E&E News with permission from POLITICO, LLC. Copyright 2023. E&E News provides essential news for energy and environment professionals. 

The operator of New England’s power grid should establish a new position to engage with low-income and minority communities unfairly burdened by pollution, five Northeast states said last week.

Such a role could serve as a “critical bridge” between ISO New England and the communities it serves as the Northeast looks to transition to cleaner energy resources, officials from Massachusetts, Vermont, Rhode Island, Maine and Connecticut said in a letter to the nonprofit grid operator. ISO New England oversees the flow of power in those states and in New Hampshire.

The independent system operator, or ISO, would be the first regional grid operator to establish an executive-level position focused on environmental justice, or the notion that no one should be subject to disproportionate and excessive pollution. The role could be carved out in the grid operator’s budget plan, according to the letter.

“We encourage ISO-NE to be first in this critical area,” state officials said in their letter.

As it evaluates the states’ request, ISO New England has added a “placeholder” in its 2024 budget proposal for an environmental justice position, grid operator spokesperson Mary Cate Mannion said in an email Friday. The grid operator, whose mission is primarily to ensure electric reliability, is eager to continue discussing environmental justice issues with the states, Mannion added.

“The ISO has been actively engaged in developing cost-effective and efficient solutions to ensure a clean and reliable energy future and [is] currently working on several initiatives to facilitate wholesale market participation and delivery of clean energy across the region,” Mannion said in an email.

While ISO New England does not permit or site energy infrastructure, it plays a role in planning where new transmission projects are developed. It also sets rules geared toward promoting reliable and affordable electricity that can influence what types of energy resources are built.

A senior environmental justice official at ISO New England could advise the organization’s board of directors on how its own rules and policies affect historically disadvantaged communities, the states said. The position could also help build relationships with those communities, officials suggested.

“As community engagement and responsibilities grow, this executive position could build out and manage additional team members providing EJ expertise to ISO-NE and enhancing community, government, and industry engagement,” state officials continued.

Signers of the letter include James Van Nostrand, chair of the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities; Anthony Roisman, chair of the Vermont Public Utility Commission; Katie Dykes, commissioner at the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection; Christopher Kearns, acting commissioner in the Rhode Island Office of Energy Resources; and Phil Bartlett, chair of the Maine Public Utilities Commission.

Phelps Turner, a senior attorney at the Maine-based Conservation Law Foundation, said that adding an environmental justice perspective to ISO New England’s senior leadership could have implications for electricity costs and the future energy resource mix.

Last year, 45 percent of the energy produced for electricity in the regional grid came from natural gas, according to the grid operator. All of the states signing the letter want to significantly expand renewable energy in New England and reduce the use of fossil fuels for electricity.

“Disproportionate air quality, environmental and human health impacts on low-income communities and communities of color often stem from our over-reliance in the region on fossil fuel-powered generation,” said Turner, who supports the states’ request for an environmental justice role.

“When the market design, as it has, favors fossil fuel generation and fails to create a level playing field for renewable generation, there are negative air quality impacts and resulting negative human health impacts on [nearby] populations,” Turner said.

ISO New England says it is committed to working with the states to meet their clean energy goals and integrate more solar and wind into the energy resource mix. It has also agreed to work with New England states in a joint effort with New Jersey and New York to identify transmission solutions for offshore wind projects.