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Going Down Under, NY PSC chair leaving to head Australian grid operator

New York State Public Service Commission Chair Audrey Zibelman will exit as the state's top utility regulator to head the Australian Energy Market Operator, or AEMO, departing the post at a time when she is named as a defendant in a federal lawsuit against nuclear credits approved under her leadership.

Zibelman, who has steered the PSC since becoming chair in 2013, will assume leadership as the AEMO's CEO based in Melbourne, Australia, effective March 20, 2017.

"Audrey's vast experience in creating and managing new wholesale electricity markets, and transforming existing energy markets and large power systems will further strengthen the work that AEMO has undertaken to support Australia's energy industry transformation," AEMO Chair Tony Marxsen said in a statement Jan. 23.

Zibelman is credited with helping to devise and implement policies aimed at shifting New York's energy system towards one that uses more decentralized, less carbon-intensive resources, embodied by the state's Reforming the Energy Vision plan, which claims the Clean Energy Standard as its crown jewel.

"Thanks to the governor's leadership, New York State is on a pathway to achieve 50% renewable electricity by 2030 and create an affordable, clean and resilient power system for all New Yorkers," Zibelman said in a statement. "It has been an immense privilege to work with my colleagues in the Governor's Office, on the commission and the dedicated, capable Department of Public Service staff. I have no doubt the governor's administration will continue to lead the nation in fighting climate change and creating a future powered by clean, renewable energy."

Zibelman's exit, along with the imminent departure of fellow commissioner Patricia Acampora in February, will bring the headcount of five-member PSC down to just two commissioners: Diane Burman, a Republican, and Gregg Sayre, a Democrat. Under state law, the five-person commission cannot have more than three members of any one political affiliation.

A PSC spokesman said Zibelman will stay through the commission's March meeting and step down toward the end of that month.

The process for seating commissioners, including the chair, requires an appointment by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo before being confirmed by the state senate, which is currently majority Republican.

A spokesman for State Sen. Joseph Griffo, chair of the Senate Energy and Telecommunications committee, said that the committee is aware of Zibelman's resignation as chair, along with the other vacancies, and is set to discuss the PSC openings heading into March. The governor's office did not respond to request for comment. Recently, the AEMO has investigated the cause of major blackouts that roiled the country after severe weather knocked out major transmission systems that supplied power to southern Australia.

While Zibelman has not dealt with the issue of severe blackouts in her time as PSC chair, she has overseen the transition of New York's energy agenda into one emphasizing renewable energy and carbon reduction goals outlined by Cuomo.

Those goals include a pledge to cut greenhouse gases 30% below 2020 levels by 2030 and procuring half of the state's total power generation from renewable resources by 2050, all folded into a sweeping energy policy agenda dubbed Reforming the Energy Vision.

The planned departure comes at a time when Zibelman and her PSC colleagues sit opposite a group power generators, including NRG Energy Inc. and Dynegy Inc., who filed a federal lawsuit against the PSC alleging that nuclear subsidies made in the form of zero emission credits interfered with FERC's authority to regulate wholesale power markets.

While it is not immediately clear how Zibelman's departure from her post in New York might affect litigation, a tentative decision from the federal court judge in the Southern District of New York on a motion to dismiss the suit could come in early February.