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Federal, state regulators prod utilities to consider technology for grid upgrade



lailluminator.com – Robert Zullo – 2023-08-26 10:00:53

Federal, state regulators prod utilities to consider technology for grid upgrade

by Robert Zullo, Louisiana Illuminator
August 26, 2023

Of the many challenges confronting the nation's aging, straining electric grid, the need for a lot of new transmission capacity is among the most pressing, experts and policymakers say.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Energy said the nation will need thousands of miles of new lines to better link regions to handle extreme weather, reduce costs and connect new renewable energy projects.

But building a new interregional transmission line can take a decade or more — chiefly because of siting and permitting delays, local resistance, planning problems, cost allocation and other obstacles. 

And while Congress has taken some steps on permitting reform (in this summer's debt limit deal), there's a suite of technologies that proponents and some state and federal regulators agree could get more out of the existing transmission system right now and potentially reduce the need for new wires.

They're called “grid-enhancing technologies,” or GETs in industry shorthand, and in many cases they've been embraced elsewhere but have been slower to take root in the United States.

“If we don't squeeze every drop out of the existing system it's going to be a tough sell as we consider the costs involved in transmission expansion,” said Dan Scripps, chair of Michigan's utility commission, at a Federal Energy Regulatory Commission task force meeting last month. “And I believe that grid-enhancing technologies can help us do that to maximize the value from the infrastructure that we have today. “

What are GETs?

Grid-enhancing technologies include a variety of tools to maximize the ability of the grid to handle the flow of electricity. They include sensors, power-flow devices, software and hardware that can better deliver real-time weather data and other technologies like topology optimization, which can identify the best grid configurations and route power flow around bottlenecks. Think of the electric grid as a road system and grid-enhancing technologies as traffic control devices and variable speed limits that can help alleviate congestion, a Department of Energy paper says.

And congestion on the nation's electric grid is a real problem. Defined broadly, congestion in electric terms means any time physical constraints on the power system prevent the cheapest power from flowing to customers, which, naturally, raises costs.

“For example, the flow of power may be restricted by the maximum thermal limit of a transformer or power line conductor,” the Department of Energy says. “Therefore, operators are forced to reroute power through less optimal paths and rely on more expensive power generation, like conventional fossil fuels, while curtailing renewable wind or solar to safely meet the demand of their customers.”

A report released in July by Grid Strategies, a consulting firm that works to integrate renewable power into the electric grid, found that congestion costs (after doubling between 2020 and 2021) rose to $12.1 billion in 2022, an increase of 56% from 2021, in regions of the country controlled by six large regional transmission organizations. By extrapolating that increase to the rest of the U.S., the firm estimated that the total cost to electric customers of congestion in 2022 was nearly $21 billion.

“The best way to reduce transmission congestion is to increase transmission capacity. However, very little of transmission spending is on new large-scale, high-voltage transmission lines,” Grid Strategies wrote. “In addition, few U.S. utilities have adopted dynamic line ratings, advanced power flow control or topology optimization (together known as Grid Enhancing Technologies or GETs) to make more efficient use of existing grid infrastructure.”



Why adoption of GETs has lagged

There was broad consensus at the seventh meeting last month of FERC's Joint Federal-State Task Force on Electric Transmission that GETs could yield big cost and reliability benefits for grid operators and electric customers.

“Perhaps the most compelling case to me for these technologies is that right now they can reduce grid congestion allowing our markets to consistently access lower cost power and to respond to real time reliability issues. And that's particularly important when we're dealing with extreme weather events,” said Andrew French, a member of the Kansas Corporation Commission who serves on the task force.

So why aren't these types of technologies more prevalent in the United States?

The biggest reason, grid experts say, is how utilities earn money for grid upgrades and how their performance is measured.

“Utilities are not necessarily directly economically impacted by the inefficient use of transmission infrastructure,” said Darcie Houck, a California utilities commissioner who also serves on the task force, adding that often utilities pass on congestion costs to power generators and customers. “Utilities are financially motivated to build more capital-intensive transmission projects to grow their rate base which they earn a return on. … GETs may defer or negate the need for such capital projects thereby reducing utility revenues.”

Part of the reluctance also stems from a need for grid operators to “validate the technologies on their own system because there are not references publicly available on performance, integration, and deployment,” the Idaho National Laboratory wrote in a report last year.

Also creating hesitance is a lack of industry standards and specifications for some of the technologies, as well as potential security concerns, said Andrew Phillips, vice president of transmission and distribution at the Electric Power Research Institute, during the FERC task force meeting.

“When a new technology comes to market, we need a spec to buy to. We need to be confident it's going to last 30 or 40 years. And that's a really important thing and often a barrier,” Phillips said, adding that EPRI, a research and development nonprofit, has developed testing for some technologies like advanced conductors and is working on standards for others.

“We need an industry accepted way of evaluating these technologies, incorporating them into our plans and then exercising those plans.”

Yet, despite the past resistance, some see attitudes among utilities changing.

“Ratepayers aren't going to pay for twice as much grid as we have today so they have to look at other solutions,” said Julia Selker, chief operating officer at Grid Strategies as well as the executive director of the WATT Coalition, which is pushing for broader adoption of GETs. “I see a mindset shift.”

Utility poles lean over a road in Grand Isle following Hurricane Ida on Sept. 4, 2021. (Photo by Sean Rayford/Getty Images)

A push from FERC and the states

FERC has taken recent steps to get more out of the existing transmission system and push for consideration of new technologies.

In 2021, FERC issued a final rule requiring transmission providers to use “ambient-adjusted ratings” for transmission lines that take into account actual air temperature and other weather conditions, instead of limiting a line's capacity based on conservative, worst-case assumptions.

The order also opened the door for transmission owners to explore “dynamic line ratings,” a more real-time rating that can account for other factors that might increase line capacity, like wind speed, cloud cover and other conditions.

This summer,  PPL Electric, which has about 1.4 million customers in eastern and central Pennsylvania, won an industry award for being the first American electric company to install and integrate a dynamic line rating system within its transmission management and market operations. The technology will save its customers' an estimated $23 million per year in congestion costs, the company says. A 2021 report commissioned by the WATT Coalition contends that deploying GETs nationwide would save more $5 billion a year in energy costs, against an upfront investment of $2.7 billion in the first year.

In July, as part of its effort to help clear backlogs of new power projects seeking to connect to the grid, FERC also required transmission providers to consider grid-enhancing technologies in their interconnection studies. And another proposed rule could also require their consideration in transmission planning.

“GETs belong in long-term planning,” Selker said. “If you're not considering GETs than you're not making the most efficient decisions for customers.”

But there's been some reluctance among FERC commissioners to mandate any specific technology.

“We need to really listen to the engineers on this,” Commissioner Mark Christie, a former Virginia utility regulator, said. “There's tremendous benefit if you get it right. There's not benefit if you don't.”



In a concurrence filed on the new interconnection rule, Christie acknowledged the vested interest of transmission owners in building “costly new transmission assets” instead of potentially less expensive technologies that could get more out of existing lines. But he also said there was “plenty of rent seeking” as well by companies who sell grid-enhancing technologies and the organizations they fund who stand to profit from any regulation mandating their use.

“Striking the appropriate balance – one that is in the public interest – is a challenge,” Christie said.

But there's also a role for states. Selker said utility regulators in several states, including Michigan, Nevada and North Carolina, have asked their companies to report on their pursuit of federal funding for grid upgrades. There's about $14 billion in federal funding available to states, tribes and utilities over the next several years for grid-enhancing technologies and other upgrades.

Caitlin Marquis, a managing director at Advanced Energy United, a trade group for clean energy companies, called the FERC requirement that GETs be considered in interconnection a small first step.

“There is a requirement to evaluate these technologies, there is a reporting requirement, but there is a lot left to transmission providers' discretion. … It's to be seen whether it results in increased use of GETs,” she said. “GETs is definitely an area where there is state interest and states could definitely be playing a bigger role in ensuring they get considered.”

Several state regulators on the FERC task force took a similar view.

“We need to squeeze every bit of value out of our existing system for the benefit of our ratepayers,” said Kimberly Duffley, a North Carolina utilities commissioner. “One thing state commissions can do is evaluate their existing rules to ensure they're creating conditions for GETs to be considered where appropriate.”

Marissa Gillett, chair of the Connecticut Public Utilities Regulatory Authority, said it's up to state and federal regulators to develop shared savings and other programs to push utilities to consider “non-wires” grid solutions, combining “a healthy disincentive with potential incentives.”

“Our ratepayers need us as regulators, whether state or federal level, to define the rules of the road and to insist on a fuller accounting of how an incumbent [utility] lands on a capital intensive solution,” she said. “I do think we need to go beyond the simple instructions that GETs should be considered.“

She noted that utility decisions on what to build aren't made just on engineering merits in a vacuum.

“We should all trust but verify but also encourage and enforce if necessary,” she said.

Louisiana Illuminator is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Greg LaRose for questions: info@lailluminator.com. Follow Louisiana Illuminator on Facebook and Twitter.

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Biden touts gun safety record to advocates, as son found guilty on felony charges • Louisiana Illuminator



lailluminator.com – Ariana Figueroa – 2024-06-12 05:00:32

by Ariana Figueroa, Louisiana Illuminator
June 12, 2024

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden on Tuesday touted his administration's efforts to reduce gun violence as the second anniversary of bipartisan gun safety legislation he signed into law approaches.

“Never give up on hope,” Biden said during an annual conference hosted by the advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety.

The speech came hours after the president's son Hunter Biden was found guilty in a federal court in Delaware of lying on paperwork related to purchasing a gun and unlawfully possessing that gun, according to media reports.

The federal jury found Hunter Biden, who has struggled with drug addiction, guilty on three related felony charges: lying to a licensed gun dealer, falsely stating on an application for a gun that he was not using drugs and for unlawfully having the gun for 11 days.

He could face up to 25 years in prison, though as a first-time offender his sentence is expected to be much less severe.

The president has avoided publicly commenting on his son's case and he did not mention the verdict in his speech.



Gaza protest

Shortly after Biden began his speech, he was interrupted by a protester who accused the president of being “complicit” in the high death toll of the Israel-Hamas war. The conflict has killed 35,000 Palestinians since Oct. 7, according to the Health Ministry in the Gaza Strip run by the Hamas-controlled government. An agreement over a U.S. backed cease-fire deal remains elusive.

The crowd immediately drowned out the protester. A group of protesters was removed, according to a White House pool report.

Biden tried to calm the crowd.

“That's alright,” he said. “Folks, it's OK, look they care, innocent children have been lost, they make a point.”

Law nears second anniversary

Biden went back to his speech, and thanked the gun safety advocates and survivors “who have turned their pain” into advocacy.

“You've helped power a movement,” Biden said.

The gun safety law Biden signed in 2022 was the most comprehensive federal gun safety legislation in nearly 30 years. It stemmed from two deadly mass shootings less than two weeks apart in 2022.

One was at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, where 19 children and two teachers were murdered, making it the second-deadliest mass shooting since the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in 2012.

The other was in Buffalo, New York, where a white supremacist targeted a Black neighborhood and killed 10 Black people in a grocery store.

Worries about guns in school mount as permitless concealed carry law looms

The 2022 law provided $750 million for states to enact “red flag laws,” which allow the courts to temporarily remove a firearm from an individual who is a threat to themselves or others as well as $11 billion in mental health services for schools and families. The law cracked down on straw purchases, illegal transactions in which a buyer acquires a gun for someone else.

The bill also requires those who are under 21 and want to purchase a firearm to undergo a background check that takes into account a review of juvenile and mental health records. It also led to the creation of the White House Office of Gun Violence Prevention.

The Justice Department also announced Tuesday it has charged more than 500 people under provisions of the gun safety law to “target the unlawful trafficking and straw-purchasing of firearms.”

The statutes “directly prohibit straw purchasing and firearms trafficking and significantly enhance the penalties for those crimes, providing for up to 15 years in prison,” according to the Justice Department.

“Criminals rely on illegal gun traffickers and straw purchasers to obtain the weapons they use to harm our communities,” Attorney General Merrick Garland said in a statement.

More work to do

Biden acknowledged that more needs to be done on gun safety legislation and he called on Congress to ban assault weapons and require universal background checks and safe storage of firearms. In a divided Congress, any gun-related legislation is unlikely to pass.

The last time Congress passed major gun legislation was 1994, when then-President Bill Clinton signed a ban on assault weapons that spanned 10 years. When it expired, Congress did not renew the ban.

Biden also took a jab at his rival, former President Donald J. Trump, and said that he won't tell people to “get over” a mass shooting.

After a school shooting in Perry, Iowa, the presumptive GOP presidential nominee said during a campaign speech in Sioux City, Iowa, that while the school shooting that left two dead – an 11-year-old student and the principal – was a “terrible thing that happened,” his advice was to “get over it. We have to move forward.”



Louisiana Illuminator is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Greg LaRose for questions: info@lailluminator.com. Follow Louisiana Illuminator on Facebook and Twitter.

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Pair of U.S. House Dems add to chorus calling for Alito, Thomas recusals • Louisiana Illuminator



lailluminator.com – Ariana Figueroa – 2024-06-12 05:00:51

Pair of U.S. House Dems add to chorus calling for Alito, Thomas recusals

by Ariana Figueroa, Louisiana Illuminator
June 12, 2024

WASHINGTON — U.S. House Democrats echoed Senate colleagues Tuesday in calling for U.S. Supreme Court Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito to recuse themselves from Jan. 6 cases, and for congressional Republicans to support passing an enforceable ethics code for the entire bench.

Reps. Jamie Raskin, ranking member of the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Accountability, and vice ranking member Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez brought together fellow progressive Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse with experts and advocates for a roundtable discussion on the “ethics crisis” facing the nation's highest court.

Recent revelations of flags sympathetic to the “Stop the Steal” movement flown outside Alito's home have reignited simmering concerns over justices' conflicts of interest as they decide politically divisive issues. This year, justices are set to rule on access to the abortion pill and whether former President Donald Trump enjoys immunity from criminal charges alleging 2020 election interference, among other cases.

Raskin and Ocasio-Cortez delivered searing remarks, admonishing decades of court actions beginning with the 5-4 decision in 2000's Bush v. Gore that ultimately decided the presidential victory for George W. Bush. The lawmakers continued on to recent events that Ocasio-Cortez characterized as “corruption that is almost comical.”

“The Supreme Court as it stands today is delegitimizing itself through his conduct,” the New York Democrat continued in her opening statement. “Americans are losing fundamental rights in the process — reproductive health care, civil liberties, voting rights, the right to organize clean air and water because the court has been captured and corrupted by money and extremism.”

Raskin, of Maryland, said the “highest court in the land today has the lowest ethical standards.”

In his opening statement, Raskin characterized the court as “the judicial arm of the Republican Party,” drawing a throughline from Bush's appointments to the bench of Chief Justice John Roberts and Alito to Trump's appointments of conservative Justices Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett.

“Now this right-wing corporate court, carefully designed to destroy Roe v. Wade and marry right-wing religion to untrammeled corporate power, has been demolishing women's abortion rights and contraceptive rights, civil rights law, voting rights law, civil liberties, environmental law, workers' rights and consumer rights, enshrining government power over people and corporate power over government,” Raskin said.

Raskin and Ocasio-Cortez's roundtable came less than a week after progressive House Reps. Pramila Jayapal of Washington and Hank Johnson of Georgia rallied with activists outside the Supreme Court urging an ethics overhaul.

That same day, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky posted to X: “As the Supreme Court term ends, the Left is once again bullying Justices who refuse to take orders from liberal Senators. The Court should take any action it deems appropriate to reprimand unethical conduct by members of its Bar. And Justices should continue to pay this harassment no mind.”



‘Keep the pressure on'

Whitehouse told Democratic members of the Oversight and Accountability Committee that Senate Democrats are shining a “heavy spotlight on the mischief.”

The Rhode Island Democrat has championed an ethics bill titled the Supreme Court Ethics, Recusal and Transparency Act, which advanced out of committee along party lines in July 2023 but has not received a floor vote.

“We need to keep the pressure on until they join the rest of the government in having a real ethics code with real fact finding and some prospects for comparing the facts that are found to the rules,” Whitehouse said.

The bill was introduced during the fallout from a 2023 ProPublica investigation revealing that Justice Clarence Thomas received gifts from and traveled with a major Republican donor.

A recent analysis by watchdog group Fix The Court illustrated that over the past 20 years the value of gifts received and likely received by Thomas dwarfs that of his colleagues.

Supreme Court orders Louisiana to use congressional map with two majority-Black districts 

Whitehouse again pressed the court in May after the New York Times published that an upside-down U.S. flag hung outside Alito's Alexandria, Virginia, home just days after former Trump's supporters breached the Capitol. The Times later revealed another flag carried by Jan. 6 insurrectionists flew outside the justice's New Jersey beach house.

Along with Sen. Dick Durbin, who chairs the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, Whitehouse requested a meeting with Roberts to urge Alito to recuse himself from cases related to the Jan. 6 attack. Roberts declined, and Alito responded to the senators, declaring he would not recuse himself.

“Thank you Sen. Whitehouse for always flying the flag right side up,” Raskin said.

The court ‘will decide all of this for all of us'

Kate Shaw, University of Pennsylvania law professor, told the lawmakers that the court is “conducting itself in ways that are fundamentally inconsistent with basic separation-of-powers principles that are a core feature of our democracy.”

“This is crystal clear right now, as it is every June, as the country waits with bated breath to learn whether and how the court will upend huge swaths of American law,” she continued.

“This year questions include whether and how the court could further erode the capacity of agencies to regulate in ways that protect our health and safety and well being,” and major firearms decisions, Shaw said.

The court will also decide whether laws on the books will “be used to hold accountable individuals charged with the attack on the Capitol, including the former president,” Shaw said. “And the court is asserting that it and essentially it alone will decide all of this for all of us.”

Over two dozen opinions are expected from the Supreme Court by the end of June.

Two decisions related to two Jan. 6 cases remain pending — one involving a former police officer who breached the Capitol and is seeking to have an obstruction charge dropped. The decision could affect hundreds of Jan. 6 defendant cases, and the 2020 election interference case against Trump, who faces the same obstruction charge.

The court is also set to decide whether Trump is immune from four federal criminal counts alleging he schemed to overturn the 2020 presidential election results and knowingly spread false information that whipped his supporters into rioting on Jan. 6.



Louisiana Illuminator is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Greg LaRose for questions: info@lailluminator.com. Follow Louisiana Illuminator on Facebook and Twitter.

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Campaign cash for child care? Louisiana lawmakers decline to endorse it. • Louisiana Illuminator



lailluminator.com – Julie O'Donoghue – 2024-06-12 05:00:35

by Julie O'Donoghue, Louisiana Illuminator
June 12, 2024

Five years ago, the Louisiana Board of Ethics told a political candidate she could use her campaign money to cover child care costs as long as the expense was related to her efforts to get elected. But state legislators declined to insert that policy into law this year.

They scuttled Senate Bill 153 to ensure candidates could use campaign dollars for election-related child care. 

The proposal passed the Louisiana Senate 31-3 but died in the House and Governmental Affairs Committee. Committee members said too many questions about the bill remained. 

The legislation's failure doesn't necessarily mean candidates can't use money raised for their campaigns to pay child care expenses. It just means the issue will be left up to the ethics board, which could reverse its 2018 decision at any time. 

“In some cases, it's better to have these individual decisions made, as they are, through [the ethics board],” House Republican Caucus Chairman Mark Wright of Covington said.

Former Rep. Ted James, D-Baton Rouge, wishes the Louisiana Legislature had made a definitive statement on the issue. As a candidate for Baton Rouge mayor and single father, James has sometimes wished he had child care for his 6 year-old daughter while campaigning. He has not used any election money for child care yet, but juggling his daughter during nighttime and weekend events can be difficult, he said.

“I think that the Legislature could have and should have put some clarity to it,” James said. 

What's a legitimate campaign expense in Louisiana has been interpreted liberally over the years. Candidates are allowed to use their funds for Mardi Gras parades, restaurant dining, flowers for constituents, charity golf tournaments, fuel and vehicle maintenance.

Several elected officials buy Saints and LSU football tickets with campaign money every year. They also collectively spent over half a million dollars in campaign funds to attend D.C. Mardi Gras, a four-day event that includes dozens of parties, in 2022. 

“If folks can use campaign money to buy Saints, Southern and LSU tickets, I certainly think [child care] should be permissible,” James said.

In the past, the ethics board has also waffled over whether campaign money can be used to cover child care costs.




The board issued two opinions to male candidates in 2000 indicating they could use campaign funds to cover child care to attend fundraisers. Based on that decision, a group of men who ran for office, including U.S. Sen. John Kennedy, tapped their campaign accounts to cover child care for years. 

Then, in 2018, the board, with a different lineup of members, told legislative candidate Morgan Lamandre she could not use campaign money for child care. One member, former House Rep. Charles Emile “Peppi” Bruneau, told Lamandre her primary responsibility was to provide for her children, not to be a political candidate. 

After widespread criticism of the decision and Bruneau's remarks, the board backtracked a few months later in 2019 and voted 6-4 to allow Lamandre the child care expense. 

Senate President Pro Tempore Regina Barrow, D-Baton Rouge, sponsored the Senate bill this year to clear up any confusion that might remain. She said 31 other states already have a law on the books that allows campaign cash to be used for child care.

“I'm trying to codify what the [ethics board] ruling says,” Barrow said.

During debate on the bill, a handful of legislators implied child care should not be an allowable campaign fund use. 

“Are you aware we have a general prohibition against using campaign funds for personal expenses?” Sen. Blake Miguez, R-New Iberia, asked Barrow during debate on the Senate floor.

“Yes,” Barrow said. 

“So why are you bringing the bill?” Miguez replied. 

Miguez, who voted against Barrow's legislation, said allowing campaign funds to be used for child care would open “Pandora's box.” During the Senate debate, he listed utility bills, lawn care, car leases and “car notes” as costs that candidates might try to cover with campaign funds if child care became an allowable expense.

Legislators already use campaign money to cover car leases. Gov. Jeff Landry also put his campaign money toward paying “a portion of a note on a motor vehicle” for years until the ethics board told him to stop in 2022. 

“Don't you think that's very important to have [a candidate's] animal taken care of while they're out there campaigning?” Miguez asked Barrow during debate on her child care bill. 

“I know that you're not equating pet animals to children,” Barrow replied. 

“I'm not. I'm just giving you some specific examples of where this could go,” Miguez said.



Louisiana Illuminator is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Greg LaRose for questions: info@lailluminator.com. Follow Louisiana Illuminator on Facebook and Twitter.

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