President-elect Donald Trump has vowed to decimate the United States’ funding for clean energy and combating climate change. But how his choices will impact the country’s main grid czar, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, is far less clear.
FERC’s role — managing the interplay between state and federally regulated electricity and gas networks — is more behind the scenes and less of a political target than, say, the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan, or the Department of Energy’s multibillion dollars in support for renewable energy. That’s left FERC untouched by threats of being shut completely out of the federal budget, as Trump has said he will do with clean energy funding and climate change programs.
Still, FERC’s decisions under the Obama administration have been critical for opening energy markets to non-fossil-fuel alternatives such as demand response and solar and wind power. For most of that time, markets have also been guided by former Chairman Jon Wellinghoff — now with SolarCity — who put promoting clean and carbon-neutral energy systems at the forefront of the agency’s mission.
In January 2017, two of the five seats on the FERC board will open up, giving the Trump administration the opportunity to appoint individuals with a different view of what FERC should do with its power. And while those seats were reserved for Republicans in any case, given Trump’s statements of support for coal, oil and natural gas, it stands to reason that he will seek out candidates who will represent those industries’ interests.
FERC by law can’t have more than three commissioners of the same political party, and right now all three sitting commissioners — Chairman Norman Bay, Colette Honorable and Cheryl LaFleur — are Democrats. In October 2015, Republican commissioner Philip Moeller left the agency to join the utility group Edison Electric Institute, and the remaining Republican member, Tony Clark, left the agency last month.
More unclear still is how a Trump administration will direct FERC’s activities on bringing distributed energy resources (DERs) like solar PV, behind-the-meter batteries, plug-in vehicles or energy-smart buildings into its purview, GTM Research analyst Elta Kolo noted. Right now, FERC’s involvement in this arena has largely been second-hand — setting up ISO markets for fast-responding DERs, or keeping open the door for demand-side resources for grid capacity.
Whether or not Trump voters would support a dismantling of policies that enable green energy on the grid isn’t completely clear, however. According to a Pew Research poll, while Trump voters are far more supportive of coal and fracking than are Clinton supporters, a majority also support solar and wind energy development.
Meanwhile, FERC still has a three-Democrat majority, at least for the next six months — Commissioner Colette Honorable’s term expires in June 2017. Chairman Norman Bay’s term expires in June 2018, and Commissioner Cheryl LaFleur’s term expires in June 2019.
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