Clean Power Plan could mean big growth for Minnesota energy tracker

With the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s final Clean Power Plan now public, a tiny St. Paul nonprofit may soon have a bigger role in overseeing compliance data.

Midwest Renewable Energy Tracking System (M-RETS) currently offers third-party validation for states in the region which have established renewable energy portfolio standards.

Its coverage basically mirrors the territory of Midwest Independent System Operators (MISO), extending from Louisiana to Manitoba.

The organization’s software, APX, Inc., uses data from MISO, utilities and other sources to issue Renewable Energy Credits (RECs). Each REC represents 1 megawatt of renewable generation and they can be bought and sold.

Since M-RETS began, its function was to offer renewable energy standard compliance data to regulatory agencies and issue credits to those who created renewable energy. But now a Maryland consultant is working with M-RETS clients – utilities, nonprofits, government agencies – to determine whether its role should expand to track all generation, not just renewable energy, said Amy Fredregill, the former executive director of M-RETS.

The idea is to find out from regulators, in particular, what addition information they will need to make certain their states are complying with the Clean Power Plan (also known as 111.D), said Fredregill, who recently left for a regulatory position at Xcel Energy.

“Two of our peers track all power generation,” Fredregill said. “When you are tracking all power generation, including fossil fuels, you can get a clearer idea of the carbon emissions in a state.”

Those agencies are The Generation Attribute Tracking System (GATS)/Environmental Information Service and the New England Power Pool Generation Information System (NEPOOL GIS). They monitor all generation in their territories in part for use in parsing data for the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, the nation’s first market-based approach to reducing greenhouse gases.

It’s a deep-in-the-weeds effort, but an important one. Without close tracking of energy generation, state and federal regulators will have less of an understanding of whether carbon pollution is being reduced, and how well states are doing in reaching their Clean Power Plan goals.

Eric Schroeder, the group’s treasurer and Great Plains Institute’s chief administrative officer, said that without third party validation organizations like M-RETS, the dispersion of RECs could be inaccurate, especially under the Clean Power Plan.

There could be double counting of RECs – with bordering states claiming the same RECs in order to show they’ve made progress toward carbon reduction goals.

“Without an energy tracking system to accurately tally credits the system could become very chaotic and very messy,” he said.

Adding all power generation to the data stream isn’t all that difficult, said Brian Rounds in an email. He’s M-RETS president and analyst at the South Dakota Public Utilities Commission. He called it a “trivial change” that could be a “win-win” for M-RETS clients and stakeholders.

The tracking will have to take into account how states approach the Clean Power Plan. States will follow “mass-based” or “rate-based” approaches to federal carbon reduction goals.

A mass-based methodology is easier and sets a maximum number of tons of carbon dioxide, over a period of time, for each plant in a state. A rate-based approach looks at the number of pounds of CO2 per megawatt hour of generation. That adds some complexity and a mechanism to adjust for renewable energy and efficiency.

If M-RETS ramps up for the Clean Power Plan its role would become especially important in a rate-based scenario for capturing – as it does now – renewable generation.

“We’re creating a portal that could handle either approach, mass or rate-based, Fredregill said. “It’s not going to be easy because we’re certain to have a patchwork of approaches in the region.”

Other challenges are arising, too. The agency will be tracking community solar and looking at how it could help track the progress utilities have made in meeting state energy efficiency goals.

For Fredregill, the M-RETS position was a perfect merger of her zeal for public policy and his rich expertise in energy markets. After being hired four years ago she was, for a time, the only paid employee.

Since then the organization has hired more staff, created a mission statement, a business plan, governance structures, policy procedures and a staffing plan.

Meanwhile, the budget increased from $1 million to $1.5 million and the staff stands at four, although one spot – hers – is still waiting to be filled. A handful of similar organizations exist around the country to tally up renewable production and, in some regions, to monitor all power generation.

Fredregill’s stewardship receives high marks.

“Amy did a fabulous job of helping M-RETS really move forward in monitoring renewable energy production,” Rounds said. “She brought us forward and met all the needs of the organization.”

Fredregill remains proud that M-RETS is the only independent tracking system in the country – the rest are part of state agencies or owned by Independent Service Operators.

“I think one of the hallmarks of M-RETS is our independence, which allows us to be nimble,” Fredregill. “That’s a good trait because there’s going to be a lot more change in the future.”

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