Last month, at least 58 Texans died as a result of the deep freeze that gripped the state and led to widespread power outages. These deaths were avoidable, and serve as a warning for the rest of the country that our power grids need to meet the urgency of the climate crisis. Our regional grid operator, ISO-New England, must plan for systemic vulnerabilities, stop subsidizing fossil fuels and begin a just transition to renewable energy sources.

A climate activist removes coal from a burn pile at Merrimack Station in Bow, N.H., in 2019. Ten to 20 percent of our electric bills subsidize Merrimack Station and the region’s other coal-fired power plant, Bridgeport Harbor in Connecticut, a system that provides short-term backup but fails to address the long-term impact of burning fossil fuels. No Coal No Gas/350 NH

Bold reductions in greenhouse gas emissions are necessary to mitigate climate impacts. Maine has a history of leadership addressing environmental challenges, and aims to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions to 45 percent below 1990 levels by 2030 and 80 percent by 2050, while reaching carbon neutrality by 2045. However, we are not on track to achieve these goals. Along with co-members of the No Coal No Gas campaign John Welton and Johnny Sanchez, both of Orono, we assert that one barrier is our reliance on the regional power grid operated by ISO-NE, whose practices uphold the continued burning of fossil fuels.

It is little known that here in New England, fossil fuel electric generators receive subsidies from our electric bills through an opaque system of “forward capacity” payments. These are payments made by ISO-NE to electric power plants and generators three years in advance of their operating period. This system is intended to provide redundancy, helping avoid disastrous outages. However, current methods favor fossil fuel generators and hinder our needed transition to renewable resources, which are inexpensive to run but expensive to build, and would often economically out-compete fossil fuels on longer time horizons. Further, the system fails to account for the downstream health and environmental impacts of extracting and burning coal, oil and gas. On average, 10 to 20 percent of our electric bills go to fossil fuel subsidies through this mechanism, unbeknown to ratepayers. 

Last month, ISO-NE held its annual auction to determine forward capacity payments going forward to 2025. The results – released to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission on Feb. 26 – uphold ISO-NE’s long-standing tradition of prioritizing short-term calculations over the long-term well-being of ratepayers. For example, upward of $12 million was allocated to the coal-fired Merrimack Generating Station in Bow, New Hampshire, lining the pockets of hedge-fund owners. In one hour of operation, this coal plant generates carbon emissions equivalent to 26 years of emissions in the life of one average American. Youth activists recently called out Merrimack Station as an unnecessary “dinosaur” that should go “extinct” on our modern grid. The fact that our ratepayer dollars subsidize such legacy generators is, in our view, actively regressive: It sets Maine up for failure in meeting our critical emissions reduction goals.

Our grid’s continued reliance on fossil fuels is more than a climate issue – it is a justice issue. Research suggests that the most vulnerable people in our communities, especially Black, Indigenous and people of color and lower-income people, are disproportionately harmed by fossil fuel pollution – and that reducing emissions saves lives. The Boston Globe estimated 16,500 New England people die annually as a result of fossil fuel pollution, many of whom are Black, Indigenous and people of color. In addition, higher rates of exposure to extreme weather events, disparities in access to health care and the persistent invasion of pipelines exacerbate the impacts of fossil fuel pollution, demonstrating that this issue intersects with and magnifies other systemic inequities. 

ISO-NE’s current practices, which fail to account for the carbon emissions and human health impacts of fossil fuel burning, are not serving the interests of Mainers. We urge ISO-NE to heed the calls of experts across the region to align their business model with the common good. The science is clear: We must rapidly transition to renewable energy to mitigate the effects of climate change on our communities and build systems resilient to our climate future. ISO-NE’s current methods may make short-term economic sense for a few but, in the larger analysis, are morally bankrupt. It is past time for us to reprioritize what we subsidize, leave dinosaur fossil fuels in the past and invest in our collective future.

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