Another key climate and clean energy pick by Obama: Wellinghoff for Energy Commission Chief

ferc.gifPresident Obama has stacked his administration with experts and advocates for strong action on global warming and clean energy (see below). Yesterday he added one more — in an unusually important position as the Washington Post reports:

Add a new name to the list of Obama appointees devoted to aggressive action on climate change.

President Obama yesterday named Jon Wellinghoff — a lawyer who once served as Nevada’s consumer advocate and a believer that electric-car owners could someday get paid to provide backup battery power to the electricity grid — as chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

FERC is especially important because of the role it plays in transmission, a key bottleneck for achieving the clean energy transition (see “A smart, green grid is needed to enable a near-term renewable revolution“). As the Post explains, FERC as a long been a backwater on this issue:

Wellinghoff joined the commission in 2006 and has been serving as acting chairman since January. He takes charge of an agency that has long been dominated by oil and gas or utility lawyers and that focuses on the wholesale part of the oil, natural gas and electricity markets. The agency oversees about 368,000 miles of electricity transmission lines and more than 11,000 miles of natural gas pipelines, and regulates hydroelectric projects and energy markets.

But Wellinghoff, who conducted a full energy audit of the shortcomings of FERC’s headquarters soon after he arrived, had previously helped write Nevada’s renewable electricity standard requiring utilities to increase their use of wind, solar and geothermal power. He was the lead attorney for a big solar installation near Las Vegas. And on his windowsill, he keeps a small Stirling engine, a device used in many geothermal and solar installations that runs when it comes in contact with the heat of a hand or computer monitor.

In an interview Thursday, he said climate change would remain “a big priority for me. From everything I’ve read, we’re in big trouble and we need to do everything we can to reduce our carbon footprint.”

How unusual: a FERC head — heck, any serious opinion maker — who actually reads up on the issue of the century. So what does he plan to do?

To do that, Wellinghoff envisions a more sophisticated electricity system with more big transmission lines and a “smart grid” with greater ability to coordinate fluctuations in wind and solar power with the demand from households, buildings and factories.

On Thursday, he supported a proposal that sets rules for smart-grid devices so they can communicate with each other more easily. He is also seeking greater authority over the siting of transmission lines that could carry renewable resources from sparsely populated places where they are plentiful to the cities and suburbs where those resources are most needed.

“How do we do that without steamrolling the states” is a key issue, Wellinghoff said. And while he said that the less FERC intrudes on the power of states the better, he also said that “at the end of the day you need the power to overrule them” in order to make sure that “we get the upgrades done that are essential to the national interest, national security and our environmental interest with respect to carbon and greenhouse gas emissions.”

A recent court ruling, which asserted states’ rights to block transmission lines, could complicate that task. But Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) favors an increase in FERC’s authority; Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) plans to push the idea as part of an energy bill.

Another potential conflict was defused this week. The Interior Department and FERC agreed to divide responsibility for regulating offshore alternative energy sources such as wind and wave power, ending a year-and-a-half-long interagency turf battle. Interior will decide on wind power proposals in federal waters, while FERC will oversee wave, tidal and ocean-current projects.

In Wellinghoff’s view, the U.S. electricity system will ultimately become more decentralized, with local solar projects generating power and automobiles serving as storage devices for utility companies. He said that in five to 10 years, if the cost of including the price of household solar installation in a mortgage is less than the money saved on utility bills, “everybody will put solar on their houses.”

And Wellinghoff also understands that plug in hybrids, are a core climate solution. And electricity is the only alternative fuel that can lead to energy independence.

Ultimately, Wellinghoff hopes to find ways to better manage electricity demand so renewable power sources can be integrated into the system. For instance, he is a proponent of using electric cars to send electricity back to the electrical grid as well as draw from it. Electric-car owners could sign up with a company that would amalgamate hundreds or thousands of car owners and, based on their average behavior, promise to either draw down or send back electricity to the grid. Car owners would be paid, which would help offset the cost of electric vehicles, currently priced at least $8,000 or as much as $12,000 more than non-electric versions.

“It makes the grid more efficient, but it could also benefit vehicle owners because they would be getting money back,” he said.

The value to electric utilities from a plug-in could be $1000 to $2000 a year — which in the medium term could be key to very rapid market introduction of plugs ins.

Kudos to Obama for another terrific pick:

6 Responses to Another key climate and clean energy pick by Obama: Wellinghoff for Energy Commission Chief

  1. DB says:

    Feinstein seeks block solar power from desert land

    California’s Mojave Desert may seem ideally suited for solar energy production, but concern over what several proposed projects might do to the aesthetics of the region and its tortoise population is setting up a potential clash between conservationists and companies seeking to develop renewable energy.

    Nineteen companies have submitted applications to build solar or wind facilities on a parcel of 500,000 desert acres, but Sen. Dianne Feinstein said Friday such development would violate the spirit of what conservationists had intended when they donated much of the land to the public….

    Greg Miller of the Bureau of Land Management said there are 14 solar energy and five wind energy projects that have submitted applications seeking to develop on what’s referred to as the former Catellus lands. None of the projects are close to being approved, he said. The land lies in the southeast corner of California, between the existing Mojave National Preserve on the north and Joshua Tree National Park on the south.

    “They all have to go through a rigorous environmental analysis now,” Miller said. “It will be at best close to two years out before we get some of these grants approved.”

  2. paulm says:


    May be he should be concentrating more on Climate Change issues first. I can see this coming back to bit.

  3. Sasparilla says:

    I sure hope all these guys and gals can come through for us on these energy / climate change items. It’s good to see them staffing such good people, thank god.

    I feel hopeful as I hear more about the folks the admin is staffing, but then I read about the current situation with the climate and what we’re doing (and others are doing) and I’m whiplashed back to the “things are seriously bad and not getting better nearly fast enough” reality of our current situation – a weird situation.

  4. Harrier says:

    paulm, a lot of people more concerned with financial matters are actually becoming less than thrilled with Obama, mostly because Tim Geithner has proven to be such a horrible Treasury Secretary.

    But I think his energy and science team has been top-notch, and I do believe he takes the issue of climate change more seriously than any president before him. Considering the climate will be an issue long after the global economy recovers, I think it’s in our long-term best interests to follow his lead.

  5. Bob Wright says:

    I agree. Orszag and Geithner sound very confident and professional on Sunday morning interview shows, but there is a growing feeling that the administration has both spent ruinous amounts of money and missed the target on jobs.

    Congressional Dems, other than the leadership, may feel there is nothing left for a big dollar climate bill at this time, and the Repubs still just say “No”. Secondly, API already has ads out against “these new (carbon) taxes”. Then there is the Fox News “socialism” thing.

    Let’s hope we don’t have the “drill baby drill” folks back in the White House in 4 years.

  6. TB Downs says:

    Perhaps the biggest news item I see in this report is that the logjam that the Bush administration created by setting MMS and FERC against each other in the control of ocean-generated power is finally resolved, in FERC’s favor.

    MMS’s focus was trying to make small developers pay like oil and gas drillers, for both the protection of the ocean floor and for royalties of power potentially generated. Ocean power developers aren’t the size of GE or Siemens, much less ExxonMobil. FERC’s approach, while protective of the environment, offers far more support to developers, who — unlike oil/gas companies, have NO FEDERAL OR STATE SUBSIDIES.