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FERC members spar over political 'scrubbing' of staff reports

Federal Energy Regulatory Commission member Richard Glick expressed dismay during the agency's Oct. 17 meeting at an apparent policy shift that bars commissioners from reviewing seasonal reliability reports before they are finalized and presented publicly.

The Democrat made his displeasure known as FERC staff presented the agency's 2019-2020 Winter Energy Market Assessment, with two of his Republican colleagues on the commission suggesting that he may have tried to "scrub" the report — an insinuation Glick dismissed.

Following the staff-led presentation, Glick noted that ever since the inception of FERC's summer and winter reliability assessments, commissioners have been given the opportunity to review and seek clarifications to the reports before they were made public. FERC has been producing seasonal reliability reports since 2003, a spokesman said Oct. 18.

"As I understand it, traditionally, and since I've been here, when we've had these types of reports we've had the ability to see the reports in advance, make some suggestions if things weren't clear and so on, and I'm very disappointed that that didn't occur today," Glick said.

Turning to the report itself, Glick pressed staff on the report's assertion that coal- and oil-fired generation "continue to play an important role in maintaining electric reliability during the winter, especially in the Northeast, where winter demand for natural gas can exceed pipelines' capacity." Glick specifically noted that coal-fired generation makes up about 2% of installed capacity within the New York ISO and even less than that in the New England region.

"How does coal continue to play an important role, as was said, at that level, 1% or 2%?" Glick asked. "I know we have to have diversity, diversity's good and so on, but why is coal, in particular, playing an important role compared to other technologies?"

That prompted a response from Republican Commissioner Bernard McNamee, who pointed out that most solar farms operate with a roughly 25% capacity factor while wind facilities generally operate at capacity factors of between 33% and 50% depending on seasonability. Coal-fired units, in contrast, can operate at capacity factors north of 90% if needed because they are "fuel-fed," McNamee said.

"So really, you can't just measure the megawatt capacity, the nameplate capacity, but you also have to look at its availability to run when you're considering how to meet energy needs, is that correct?" McNamee asked staff.

The commissioner concluded by stating that he agreed with the idea that the appropriate time for commissioners to comment on reliability reports is when they are presented during open meetings. "I think it's very important that the staff give us their unvarnished view of these issues and for us not to scrub what you want to tell us," McNamee said.

Glick retorted that past commissions have had the opportunity to review such reports before they are finalized.

"I would say that historically, and I understand this has been true for every single report beforehand ... before someone complained about it, that commissioners had a chance to provide comment if there were questions or maybe some numbers that might not seem correct," Glick said. "Not necessarily for commissioners to say, 'Well you should say it this way because I like this technology versus another technology.' I'm not saying that at all. But I am saying it's important to have the opportunity to help clarify these particular reports because again, it's been done every single time by the commission since these reports started up except for today."

During a press briefing following the meeting, Chairman Neil Chatterjee stood by the policy change and said he "wholeheartedly" supported McNamee's comments.

"Perhaps prior iterations of the commission were more politicized and had politically-appointed commissioners who were scrubbing staff's work," Chatterjee said. "I, in wanting to be above politics, feel that we should go with the career staff's work and not have politically appointed commissioners scrubbing it."