The U.S. Senate voted Monday to confirm the nominations of Mark Christie and Allison Clements to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, approving a bipartisan pairing that will bring the agency to a full five members, though it is likely to retain a Republican majority through mid-2021.
Monday’s voice vote ends a two-year stalemate over the tradition of “pairing” Republicans with Democrats when filling vacancies at FERC. Last year the Trump administration declined to move forward with a nomination for Clements, a Democrat and founder and president of energy policy consulting firm Goodgrid, director of clean energy markets at the Energy Foundation and former director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Sustainable FERC project.
Clements was nominated again this summer, along with Christie, a Republican and member of the Virginia Corporation Commission. They will serve their terms through 2024 and 2025, respectively.
FERC has had a Republican majority since 2017. That majority has outvoted FERC’s Democrats to impose a series of policies on Eastern U.S. grid operators that have been roundly decried by clean-energy advocates as creating obstacles for states seeking to decarbonize their electricity systems.
Those include FERC’s order in 2019 requiring mid-Atlantic grid operator PJM to impose minimum prices on state-subsidized clean resources that bid into its roughly $10-billion-per-year capacity market. That decision, which could bar many state-sponsored resources from clearing the market, has spurred multiple legal challenges and led states including New Jersey, Maryland and Illinois to consider options to create alternative capacity structures outside PJM.
Other FERC decisions passed by its Republican majority over the objections of Democratic members have imposed restrictions on state-supported resources in the capacity markets of New York state grid operator NYISO and upheld a capacity market structure created by New England grid operator ISO-NE that has garnered criticism from the region’s state and federal representatives for restricting renewable energy participation.
The Biden administration is expected to appoint a Democrat to replace current FERC chair James Danly, a Republican who replaced long-time chairman Neil Chatterjee last month in a surprise decision from the Trump administration. Danly has voted against Chatterjee and Democrat Richard Glick on some decisions this year, including FERC’s Order 2222, which opens interstate energy markets to distributed energy resources and a policy statement that offers grid operators the option to propose carbon pricing in their wholesale electricity markets.
Industry watchers have speculated that Glick, a former government affairs director for Avangrid Renewables and Iberdrola and general counsel for the Democrats on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, may be tapped to chair FERC once Joe Biden is inaugurated in January. But others have pointed to Clements’ long-time record in clean energy policy as making her the more likely choice to chair the agency, a prospect the Senate’s approval now brings to the fore.
Clements “has the capability, the intellect and the background to, I think, lead that agency in a very positive way to decarbonize the electric grid,” Jon Wellinghoff, FERC chairman from 2009 to 2013 and CEO of Grid Policy, told GTM in an interview last month.
It’s unclear how FERC’s new five-member commission will act on matters such as its Eastern U.S. capacity market rulings and other key issues such as natural-gas pipeline policy or transmission grid policy.
As FERC chair, Chatterjee has initiated discussions on carbon pricing and offshore wind transmission development and supported orders opening interstate energy markets to energy storage and distributed energy resources. But he was also a key vote in supporting FERC’s capacity market decisions that many see as unfavorable to clean-energy growth.
Chatterjee’s term expires in mid-2021, at which point the Biden administration is expected to nominate a Democrat to fill his seat, ending the four-year Republican dominance of the agency.
Industry groups on different sides of the political spectrum have long called for all five FERC commission seats to be filled in light of the long list of vital energy-policy decisions before the agency.
“Given the significant wholesale energy market and electric transmission challenges facing our nation today, a full, bipartisan complement of five FERC commissioners will be essential to achieving the long-overdue regulatory reform needed to accelerate our energy transition,” Gregory Wetstone, president and CEO of the American Council on Renewable Energy, said in a November statement.
“We think the best outcome going forward for the grid and consumers, and ultimately for the environment, is that competition and innovation deliver the best results,” Todd Snitchler, CEO of the Electric Power Supply Association, told GTM in an interview last month. EPSA originally supported the capacity market policies that led to FERC’s order on PJM’s capacity markets; however, the group has recently stated its support of carbon pricing as an alternative to a policy structure that drives individual states out of interstate markets.