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Utility 2.0 plan for Long Island should prioritize clean, renewable energy

“For Long Island, anything that causes the transition from oil to natural gas – substituting one fossil for another - is not good energy, nor public health policy," says Adrienne Esposito of Citizens Campaign for the Environment, at an anti-fracking prote
“For Long Island, anything that causes the transition from oil to natural gas – substituting one fossil for another - is not good energy, nor public health policy," says Adrienne Esposito of Citizens Campaign for the Environment, at an anti-fracking prote
© 2014 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

You may have thought - as I did - that handing over our electricity transmission to PSEG was the end of it, and that keeping LIPA in place was the way to insure the public's ownership of vital resources, while PSEG provided the "professionalism" of a private entity in delivering and maintaining it.

But it turns out that was only the first part of Utility 2.0 - Governor Cuomo's plan to create a 21st century utility for Long Island.

And here comes the controversy and the urgency: PSEG may be reneging on LIPA's prior commitment to press ahead with renewable energy, dooming any hope for making renewables a significant portion of Long Island's energy and economic foundation.

That would be a travesty.

"Last year, Governor Cuomo promised an upgrade to our electric utility in Long Island. Now, his Department of Public Service is developing a plan to upgrade the Long Island Power Authority -- but it fails to make a significant commitment to renewable energy like our great offshore wind potential and ignores the states goal for a 30% clean energy target. At the same time, the plan continues reliance on natural gas!" stated David Alicea, Organizing Representative for Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign.

"With a proposal for what would be one of America's first offshore wind farms under consideration this year and a strong homegrown solar industry, Long Island has the opportunity to be clean-tech leader. We just need the leadership of Governor Cuomo and the Department of Public Service to develop a plan that moves us to a clean energy future."

He notes that "Utility 2.0, has some promising proposals – but it fails to move us past outdated and dirty fossil fuels. A true 21st century plan will lead a transition to renewable energy like offshore wind and solar. This will keep our families safe by limiting dangerous carbon emissions and helping avoid more climate-fueled disasters like Superstorm Sandy."

This week, PSEG kicked off two weeks of public hearings on their proposed Utility 2.0 plan, part of Governor Cuomo’s promise to reorganize LIPA as a 21st century utility. Hearings have already been held in Smithtown (8/19), Mineola (8/20), and the Rockaways (8/21); coming up are East Hampton (8/26) and Riverhead (8/26). (See: PSEG-Long Island seeks comment on plan to create '21st Century' Utility)

(Meanwhile, if you can't attend any of the public hearings, you can still present your comments, by August 29 through the sierraclub.org site.)

Utility 2.0 refers to Long Island. But at the same time, the state is going through a similar process of examining its utilities across the state, called Reforming the Energy Vision (REV). The initial REV proposal is set to be released on August 22. But while REV is expected to take years, the first phase of Utility 2.0 will begin next year, positioning Long Island as a leader and model for the statewide overhaul.

“We have an opportunity to lead the state in building a 21st century utility powered by clean, renewable energy,” says Matt Kearns who earlier in the summer ran the Wind 100, a nearly 100 mile run from Montauk to Long Beach, the two points on Long Island with proposed offshore wind projects.

The recently released Utility 2.0 proposal includes investments in energy efficiency and solar power as well as steps to cut unnecessary electricity use at peak times. But critics say it falls short on what many had hoped would be a strong vision for building large-scale renewable energy, particularly offshore wind that could help meet peak demand by generating power when it is needed most.

“Governor Cuomo promised us a modern utility, but we can’t have a modern utility run on last century’s dirty energy sources," Kearns says. "PSEG-LI’s commitment to invest in energy efficiency and solar is a great start, but Long Islanders are demanding a plan that includes building large-scale renewable energy, including offshore wind.”

Recently, PSEG-LI re-committed to plans already in place by LIPA to invest in 280 megawatts of new renewable energy generation from the Deepwater project, 30 miles off Montauk in Rhode Island's water, which would be enough to power 150,000 Long Island homes. That decision, which could spur development of New York’s first offshore wind farm, is expected at the December LIPA Board meeting.

Many are expected to speak at the hearings in favor of adding more renewable energy, especially offshore wind power, in addition to hundreds of similar comments already collected since the plan was presented publicly on July 24.

“We’re looking for leadership from Governor Cuomo, and Utility 2.0 is his first test. We hope he delivers on his promise with both a more efficient utility and a bold commitment to offshore wind power,” said Kearns.

The Deepwater project would be America's first offshore wind farm - hard to believe since off-shore wind has become commonplace in Europe; indeed wind power generates 14% of the European Union’s electricity demand - 6562 mw from offshore wind energy. America? zero.

“What has Europe figured out that we haven’t?” asks Adrienne Esposito of Citizens Campaign for the Environment.

“This is not new technology, it works, we don’t need pilot programs, we need to get aggressive, need to do it, we need you to assign real value to the plan," she told a public hearing on Cuomo's Energy Plan, in March.

“For Long Island, anything that causes the transition from oil to natural gas – substituting one fossil for another - is not good energy, nor public health policy."

Even the NYS Department of Energy has projected that the state can supply 50% of its electricity needs from wind power.

The Rhode Island project is well underway, and Long Island has an opportunity to be a part of it.

But I want more. Because separately, there are proposals for what could be America's biggest offshore wind farm south of Long Island, some 12 miles offshore, because this area provides the best conditions for offshore wind.

This plan for Long Island Offshore Wind has been hemmed and hawed for years now, and I frankly don't understand why a private company - even Exxon Mobil, with its billions in cash reserves just sitting around and which has proved its interest in diversifying by becoming a major fracker of natural gas - doesn't go to the federal government, lease the rights (just as Exxon Mobil leases drilling rights in the Gulf of Mexico), and construct wind turbines, at the same time going around and gathering contracts from municipalities like Long Beach for wind-generated power. This would be no different in structure than National Grid which builds and owns multi-million dollar gas plants that supply LIPA's energy to generate electricity. Instead of gas plants -and the millions that it will take to upgrade Port Jefferson, for example - the money should go into building a wind farm, because once the wind farm is built, the energy from it is essentially free.

LIPA spends $1.5 billion a year on fossil fuels to power the generators that make electricity, something like 40 percent of its budget. That is largely the reason why Long Islanders presently pay the highest utility rates in the country, and the high cost is considered a major inhibitor of to attracting new businesses and jobs. So what if LIPA put that $1.5 billion into wind power, instead?

And why not spend some of that Superstorm Sandy money intended to restore and harden the grid to a smart grid that could distribute and receive different energy sources, including solar, letting home and business owners be their own small energy factories, feeding the grid?

Cuomo, whether because he believes in the potential of developing clean renewable energy as an economic and environmental boon or merely to court Progressives, has talked a good game and done some important things. For example, just last month, Cuomo announced that $3.3 million has been awarded to seven research teams to develop technologies that add resiliency and efficiency to New York State's electric grid. These “smart grid” technologies will use innovative methods to enhance grid performance, reduce the risk of power outages and lessen environmental impacts and energy consumption, all while reducing the cost of power delivery.

Con Edison, New York City is getting $2 million to partner with Pareto Energy and GE to investigate the use of Pareto's GridLink technology to connect the Kings Plaza Shopping Mall in Brooklyn to Con Edison's electrical networks for the purpose of selling excess power into the distribution grid. The ability to export power during grid outages would provide electricity to specific places in the community, such as to gas stations, supermarkets, hotels or other vital services. The mall, which is set up to function as a shelter during emergencies, could also provide power to medical services, warming during a dangerous cold spell or cooling during a heat wave, and other community support. Now this seems like promising technology.

What is Long Island's share going for? Brookhaven National Laboratory is getting $250,000 to use radar in real-time response for restoration of electric utility systems - in other words not a smart grid at all, not a grid that would further the aim of alternate energy sources.

Wind power isn't science fiction. When you get off the Long Beach Loop, there you see a wind turbine. At the end of the Cape Cod Canal (which was built 100 years ago by a private venture headed by August Belmont), you see a wind turbine that has been there for years; now when I go biking on Rhode Island's East Bay path, just south of Providence, there is an entire wind farm.

"You want a glimpse of what the future could should will look like once we overcome America’s powerful Big Carbon lobby, check out what’s happening in Denmark," Sam Parry of the Environmental Defense Fund writes.

"Wind turbines were everywhere: in and around the city and suburban landscape, ever-present, just part of normal Danish life. Wind supplies 30% of Denmark’s energy. And they have plans to make that 50% by 2020 and to be 100% renewable by 2050!"

"This American environmentalist was left with a mixture of inspiration, motivation, and, I admit, a tiny bit of envy. Let’s face it, in spite of the progress we’ve made to promote renewables here in the U.S., as the Danes have shown, we have a long way to go. But, I return from my trip now more committed than ever before to getting America on track and forging our own robust clean energy future."

But policy makers seem to be two-faced when it comes to committing to clean, renewable energy, which is why the Utility 2.0 is so important, because it will set priorities and path for future development.

Indeed, sometimes I think that the government leaders who are supposed advocates for renewable energy are really obstacles. Look at Cuomo, who speaks so forcefully of the need to address climate change and cultivate clean renewable energy, but has yet to act definitively to ban fracking in New York State.

"That's why the Utility 2.0 is so important," Kim Teplitzky, Deputy Press Secretary, Northeast & Mid-Atlantic, for the Sierra Club Beyond Coal Campaign, tells me, "because it can eliminate a lot of the obstacles, if Cuomo re-imagines what Long Island's utility will be, he prioritizes.

"There's some good stuff in [the Utility 2.0 plan] - investing in efficiency and solar, but it is still missing larger commitment to renewable energy and making clean, renewable energy a larger part of Long Island's energy future.

"Utility 2.0 is a long range plan that will take many years, setting out a massive overhaul of LIPA, directed by Cuomo. It includes everything: how electricity is generated, distributed , reorganization of LIPA to make it a modern 21st century utility.... The process they are in now is analysis of LIPA's current structure, holdings, electricity generation - then they will make recommendations.... It will answer the question of what is the future of Long Island's electricity utility."

"LIPA had opportunities in the past and failed to make robust investments in renewables. Now we are hoping Utility 2.0 will remove those obstacles.... a modern utility has to be built around renewable energy."

That's why the environmentalists and climate change activists have reason to be skeptical and to hold feet to the fire.

It's not just the fact that carbon-based economy is unsustainable - imposing costs of climate disasters and public health, as prices for gas and oil inexorably rise - but that the cost of wind and solar and other renewables are steadily going down, prompting even prominent conservatives like former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson to argue in favor of shifting to renewables.

“This commitment to add more renewable energy to our power mix was a direct result of citizen demand for more clean power on Long Island," states Lisa Dix, New York Senior Representative, Sierra Club. "It’s unacceptable to further delay a process that has already taken far too long. Time and again, Long Islanders have shown that we’re ready to lead New York with investments in renewable energy, particularly offshore wind power. We’re counting on Governor Cuomo to keep his promise to Long Islanders and push LIPA and PSEG to make offshore wind a reality this year.”

"Delaying what is right and in the best interests of Long Island is not acceptable. Such delays will only give towns on the East End incentive to approve costly and polluting fossil-fuel peaker plants under the guise of already refuted energy shortfalls," William Toedter, President, North Fork Environmental Council. "Our needs are clear. Our commitment is strong. Our future is now. LIPA and the state must keep their word and help keep Long Island's energy clean for all and forever.

Anne Reynolds, Executive Director, Alliance for Clean Energy New York, comments, "Bringing renewable energy to Long Island via a LIPA contract is a great business opportunity for clean energy companies in New York. We sincerely hope the LIPA decision is not delayed and Long Islanders can begin -- sooner rather than later -- to reap the benefits of local investment and economic development, as well as cleaner air."

“While Long Island has no need for more fossil-fueled power plants like Caithness there is an urgent need to replace polluting power generation with clean solar and wind power," says Gordian Raacke, Executive Director, Renewable Energy Long Island. "This should prompt Governor Cuomo to deliver on the promise of utility scale renewable energy projects rather than ‘throwing out the baby with the bath water’.”

“People and wildlife alike need clean energy," notes Catherine Bowes, Senior Manager, National Wildlife Federation. "Harnessing New York’s unrivaled offshore wind resource will create jobs, stabilize energy prices, improve local air and water quality, and help protect coastal communities and fragile wildlife habitat from the dangerous effects of climate change.”

"Governor Cuomo’s energy vision calls on Long Island to take the lead, with a clear commitment to clean energy embedded in the new LIPA reforms," says Conor Bambrick, Air and Energy Director, Environmental Advocates of New York. "Now is not the time to consider re-booting Utility 2.0 before it even gets off the ground. We know that Long Island and the rest of the state need to cut climate pollution and diversify our fuel mix with clean energy resources, we don’t need to hire a consultant to tell us that offshore wind provides one of the best opportunities to meet those needs.”

"Long Island has an unprecedented opportunity to be a model for a 21st century utility, as promised by Governor Cuomo," Teplinsky says. "In order to do so, there needs to be a major commitment to renewable energy to power Long Island. You can't power a 21st century utility on outdated and dirty fuel. Utility 2.0 is an opportunity for us to move forward and model what a 21st century utility should look like."

See also:

Long Island could lead the nation, world in offshore wind power

National Climate Assessment: Long Island vulnerable to extreme storms, asthma

Draft New York State Energy Plan opens door for natural gas development

PSEG-Long Island seeks comment on plan to create '21st Century' Utility

Karen Rubin, Long Island Populist Examiner
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