U.S. Senate confirms fossil fuel advocate Bernard McNamee to FERC

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Only one day after Cincinnati became the 100th U.S. city to commit to 100% renewable energy, the U.S. Senate confirmed Bernard McNamee as the third Republican on the Federal Energy Regulatory Committee (FERC).

In an administration which has routinely appointed individuals with strong ideological orientations and relatively few technical qualifications to head federal agencies, the appointment of Bernard McNamee is not inherently unusual.

Regardless, a video discovered by UtilityDive showing McNamee’s outspoken positions sparked significant controversy over his nomination, with both Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chair Lisa Murkowski (R) and Ranking Member Maria Cantwell (D) mentioning this video before the committee’s vote to advance his nomination.

According to RTO Insider, the final vote that came down this afternoon was 50-49, with all Democrats voting against McNamee. This includes Senator Joe Manchin (D-West Virginia), who has been one of the greatest allies of the fossil fuel industries in the Democratic Party.

 

FERC and renewable energy policy

The implications for renewable energy are clearly negative. McNamee worked on the proposed bailout of coal and nuclear power plants when he served under Secretary Perry at the U.S. Department of Energy, and could be instrumental in setting market rules that favor these resources.

However, it is also important to note where FERC’s jurisdiction begins and ends. As the regulator of wholesale energy markets, FERC oversees grid operators in the Eastern and Midwestern United States as well as the California Independent System Operator (CAISO).

However it does not have direct jurisdiction over the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) grid, and does not have the same kind of input on the electricity system in the many regions that do not have wholesale electricity markets – including much of the South, Mountain West and Pacific Northwest.

FERC also has jurisdiction over interstate transmission, and over the enforcement of the Public Utility Regulatory Power Act of 1978 (PURPA). PURPA has been instrumental in the growth of utility-scale solar markets in North Carolina, Utah and other states that do not have strong renewable energy mandates, however in many cases PURPA implementation has been weakened at the state level.

There is a potential for FERC to gut PURPA, and the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners (NARUC) has already called for state-level exemptions to the policy. However PURPA may already be on the way out as a driver of utility-scale solar markets, such as in North Carolina which has moved to a solicitation-based system.