Jon Wellinghoff, Obama’s energy futurist
The chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is committed to renewable energy.
When giving his slide presentation on America’s new energy direction, Jon Wellinghoff sometimes sneaks in a picture of himself seated in a midnight blue, all-electric Tesla sports car.Skip to next paragraph
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It often wins a laugh, but makes a key point: The United States is accelerating in a new energy direction under President Obama’s newly appointed chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). At the same time, FERC’s key role in the nation’s energy future is becoming more apparent.
Energy and climate legislation now pending in Congress would put in FERC’s hands a sweeping market-based cap-and-trade system intended to lower industrial greenhouse-gas emissions.
Besides its role granting permits for new offshore wind power, the agency is also overseeing planning for transmission lines that could one day link Dakota wind farms to East Coast cities, and solar power in the Southwest to the West Coast.
“FERC has always been important to power development,” says Ralph Cavanagh, energy program codirector for the Natural Resources Defense Council, a New York-based environmental group. “It’s just that people haven’t known about it. They will pretty soon.”
That’s because Mr. Wellinghoff and three fellow commissioners share an affinity for efficiency and renewable energy that’s not just skin-deep, Mr. Cavanagh and others say.
Wellinghoff started his energy career as a consumer advocate for utility customers in Nevada before being appointed by President Bush in 2005 as a FERC commissioner. He was a key author of “renewable portfolio standards” that require Nevada’s utilities to incorporate more renewable power in their energy mix. Now he’s the nation’s top energy regulator.
It’s clear that FERC has a mandate to speed change to the nation’s power infrastructure, Wellinghoff says.
When it comes to the extra work and complexity FERC will encounter if Congress appoints FERC to administer a mammoth carbon-emissions cap-and-trade program, Wellinghoff is eager, yet circumspect.
“We believe we are fully capable of fulfilling that role with respect to physical trading [of carbon allowances],” he says during an interview in Washington. “We’ve demonstrated our ability to respond efficiently and effectively to undertake those duties Congress has given to us. Unfortunately, the result of that is they give you more to do.”
While the US Department of Energy controls long-term energy investment decisions, FERC’s four commissioners (a fifth seat is vacant) appear determined to ensure that wind, solar, geothermal, and ocean power get equal access to the grid.
The commissioners are also biased against coal and nuclear power on at least one key factor: cost.
Many in the power industry believe that renewable energy still costs too much. Not Wellinghoff, who says: “I see these distributed resources [solar, wind, natural-gas microturbines, and others] coming on right now as being generally less expensive.”