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Martin O'Malley: Electric grid operator PJM must enable Md. clean energy transformation

Martin O'Malley: Electric grid operator PJM must enable Md. clean energy transformation
clean energy (Kenneth K. Lam / Baltimore Sun)

Not that long ago, during my time as governor, Maryland was a national leader in clean energy goals, requiring 25 percent renewable energy by 2020. Today, we again join the top, with the Maryland legislature’s passage of the Clean Energy Jobs Act last month, requiring that half our state’s energy come from renewable sources by 2030.

Ten other states also have standards of at least 50 percent renewables on the books; half of them have 100 percent targets. There are also more than 120 cities in America with 100 percent clean energy goals. And most of the more than 20 Democrats running for president have declared their full support for 100 percent clean energy by 2050.

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To say that clean energy leadership is fast-growing is an understatement, but much more is needed to tackle climate change at the pace and scale required. Certainly here in Maryland we feel the urgency, with our over 3,000 miles of shoreline and so many communities at risk from flooding, storm surge and sea level rise.

The current White House, with its total reversal of policies on climate and clean energy, is one obvious venue for improvement. But there’s another, little known entity that is absolutely critical: the organization that operates our electric grid and runs our region’s wholesale energy markets.

PJM Interconnection isn’t a household name, but it touches the lights and wallets of over 60 million people every day here in Maryland and across the Mid-Atlantic and Ohio Valley. The wholesale markets that PJM runs across its 13-state region, and the rules and policies it sets for them, play a major role in determining the types of energy sources that provide our electric power. They also affect how much we pay on our monthly bills.

Maryland and other PJM states like New Jersey that want major clean energy transformations will need PJM to be a nimble partner to make those changes possible and economical. There is hope that PJM can play this role, but also cause for grave concern.

Concern stems from the often entrenched, old-fashioned approaches that have dominated at PJM for many years. My own experience with the grid operator when I was governor is an early example: Instead of working with our state to implement our clean energy goals, PJM chose to resist and then teamed up with federal regulators to block us from moving forward.

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The grid operator has catered to fossil fuel interests by designing markets that funnel them extra payments for future power generation far in excess of what’s actually needed. PJM also has a rule change in the works that could hit most solar and wind with a new financial penalty — a measure that would push even more customer energy bill dollars into the pockets of owners of expensive fossil fuel plants. It’s a move that’s out of touch with the will of the public at a time when building new wind and solar powered generation is cheaper than building new gas-powered plants.

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There is cause for a lot of concern, but there is also an opportunity for PJM to face the future and restore public trust: The PJM Board of Managers is beginning a search for a new CEO in July — a precious opportunity to recruit leadership that can pivot PJM for a new energy era.

PJM has innovated before. Several decades ago, it led the transition from utility monopolies to the nation’s largest system of competitive energy markets. The goal of producing reliable and affordable electricity hasn’t changed since then, but the tools and technologies for delivering it have. Resources like solar, wind, demand response, energy efficiency and battery storage now enable us to pursue an additional goal that should be just as important: powering our lives without pollution.

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The fact that states like Maryland are taking clean energy and emissions-cutting goals to the next level signals the new era for PJM, one in which the grid and market operator will need to fully enable — rather than resist — the transformation to a clean energy grid. That vision and shift will need to start from the top, with the new CEO.

Martin O’Malley (mom@martinomalley.com), a Democrat, served as the 61st Governor of Maryland from 2007 to 2015.

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