One Maine climate activist’s bold plan to take back the grid

Sonja Birthisel and a fellow activist pose in 2020 with a banner that reads “Coal is Not Essential” to protest the continued burning of coal in New England. | Johnny Sanchez

After getting arrested for trespassing at the Merrimack Generating Station in Bow, New Hampshire — the last coal-fired power plant in the region that doesn’t already have a shutdown date — a group of climate activists from across New England decided that they wanted to up the ante. 

The activists decided to infiltrate the Independent System Operator of New England (ISO-NE), the nonprofit corporation created in 1997 to oversee a six-state bulk electric power and transmission system. The plan wasn’t to scale any fences or cut padlocks but rather to get activists elected to the ISO’s Consumer Liaison Group, a stakeholder group they saw as stacked with industry insiders that was little more than window dressing for public input.

“We thought it would be great to get voices in the room that actually reflect people who care about the climate as opposed to fossil fuel interests,” said Maine ecologist Sonja Birthisel, one of six climate activists elected to the CLG last month. 

To Birthisel, the plan was far more radical than a one-off protest. It was a chance to agitate from inside the system and to shine a light on a bureaucracy where most decisions happen behind closed doors. And it was also a chance to democratize a quasi-governmental institution that ordinary people from across the region are deliberately made to feel is not theirs.

“That is the purpose of electing people to this board,” she said. “It’s to figure out how we connect as a region and leverage our collective power.”

The inside game

Birthisel holds a sign that reads “#closebow” referencing the No Coal No Gas campaign’s fight to close the last coal-fired power plant in New England. | Johnny Sanchez

Birthisel is a lecturer in the University of Maine’s Ecology and Environmental Sciences department, where she earned her PhD and where she now specializes in sustainable agriculture. She has a background as a youth and faith leader and is also currently the director of the Wilson Center, a progressive, multi-faith organization on the UMaine campus. On top of that, she was elected to the Orono Town Council in March. 

In 2019, after providing research for climate policies in Maine, Birthisel was looking for a way to get more involved with other climate activists and faith leaders on the ground. She found out about the protests organized by a campaign called “No Coal No Gas” to close the Merrimack coal-fired power station outside of Concord. 

“I was becoming increasingly frustrated with a slow pace of policymaking that I was peripheral to and engaged in at that time,” she explained. “Myself and 64 other activists were all arrested marching onto coal plant property with five-gallon buckets. Our intention was to go take the coal from the coal pile beside the plant and physically remove it from the fires of climate catastrophe.”

While the action generated headlines and broad public support, Birthisel and the organizers realized they needed to put much more focus on how the plant fit into the region’s larger energy economy. Despite lofty goals by many states to have zero net carbon emissions by 2050 (Gov. Janet Mills announced before the United Nations that Maine will be carbon neutral by 2045), they knew without a strategy to change the regional grid, it will be hard to reach those goals.

But getting the public to care about the arcane inner workings of ISO-NE is no small task.

“Some organizers have been thinking about how to target the ISO for decades, but it’s hard to message on because it’s so full of acronyms and so opaque by design. It really discourages meaningful citizen participation,” Birthisel explained. “It’s really hard to be like, ‘Hey, we’re going to do this thing with ISO-NE.’ It sounds way cooler to say we’re going to block a coal train. People are like, ‘Yeah, sign me up.’”

Despite the tougher sell, they were able to mobilize enough people to change the makeup of the Consumer Liaison Group.

The activists had received word that the group was holding its quarterly meeting in Boston on Nov. 30 where they would be electing members to the CLG’s 12-member coordinating council. The activists packed the room and Birthisel and others contested six seats on the council, winning all six. They ousted two longtime incumbents — Robert Rio, the senior vice president of government affairs for Associated Industries of Massachusetts, and Mary Smith, a retired former energy manager for Harvard University.

“It felt disruptive for sure,” Birthisel said. “It was a fun little countercultural afternoon.”

Making an institution responsive

Birthisel (second from right) and other newly-elected and re-elected members of the Consumer Liaison Group’s Coordinating Council. | Courtesy of Birthisel

While the CLG has no structural power to dictate policy changes at ISO-NE, Birthisel believes it gives the climate community an important bully pulpit to call for change.

“The higher-ups are mandated to meet with us quarterly and to listen to what we have to say,” she said. “It provides a platform for us to have our voice heard, or to agitate if we feel like it’s not being listened to or taken seriously.”

One policy the activists are hoping to change is a process called “Forward Capacity Payments,” where the ISO makes financial commitments to energy generators three years in advance to ensure the grid has extra energy during peak demand to avoid outages. 

The procurement process favors generators that run on fossil fuels over renewables, the activists argue, and Sens. Ed Markey and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Bernie Sanders of Vermont have complained that ISO-NE’s current policies do not support the region’s climate goals.

“Billions of dollars get funneled through Forward Capacity Payments,” Birthisel explained. “That’s a powerful tool that we collectively as a New England region could use if we wanted to use more of our money to invest in renewables.”

Birthisel sees the effort to democratize the regional grid and local grid, as with the referendum campaign in Maine to replace Central Maine Power and Versant with a consumer-owned utility, as essential to the broader climate movement. 

“I think that a consumer-owned utility that we are able to manage ourselves, rather than having a Canadian municipality manage a big chunk of the energy of the state of Maine, would be a step forward,” she said, referring to the city of Calgary, which owns Enmax, the parent company of Versant Power.

But it’s essential that residents begin to see the grid as truly belonging to them if these institutions are ever to be responsive to the public, Birthisel said. That involves working-class people from Maine and New England coming from diverse backgrounds stepping into spaces where they might not feel welcome. 

“A lot of positions of power have quite a bit of gatekeeping around them that makes people feel like they don’t belong,” she said. “I’ve felt impostor syndrome plenty of times in my life. I was elected to the Orono Town Council this spring and I’ve learned that the people who are in power aren’t necessarily smarter or better equipped than anybody else.” 

Birthisel continued, “My hope is that by stepping into yet another role in which I have some impostor syndrome, it encourages people with a different perspective. People with the ability to represent voices that have not previously been part of that conversation. I believe there’s inherent value in that.”

About Dan Neumann

Avatar photoDan studied journalism at Colorado State University before beginning his career as a community newspaper reporter in Denver. He reported on the Global North's interventions in Africa, including documentaries on climate change, international asylum policy and U.S. militarization on the continent before returning to his home state of Illinois to teach community journalism on Chicago's West Side. He now lives in Portland. Dan can be reached at dan(at)

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