By Karl Grossman
It took years of hard work to get the Long Island Power Authority created. The vision was to have a public power utility through which Long Islanders, democratically, could determine their energy future. There are many similar and successful operations around the United States.
And it’s taken just weeks for the energy dream here to be basically destroyed.
“POWER TRANSFER,” declared Newsday’s front-page last week. “LIPA’s handoff of most operations to PSEG is underway,” said the sub-head.
The bill, passed by the New York State Legislature last month, giving Newark, New Jersey-based Public Service Electric and Gas or PSEG nearly complete control of Long Island’s electric system and reducing LIPA to a 20-employee shell, had not yet been signed by Governor Andrew Cuomo. But, as the Newsday article began: “The transition to PSEG’s operation of Long Island’s electric grid is underway marking the end of 15 years of LIPA control.”
Governor Cuomo remains extremely bullish about what’s happening — indeed he’s been the force behind it. “LIPA was a bad idea that should have been replaced 20 years ago,” said Mr. Cuomo in a recent appearance on Long Island.
Long Island’s state lawmakers were deeply split when the vote came on June 20. In the State Assembly, nine members from Long Island voted against it, 13 members for it.
State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele, Jr. of Sag Harbor rose to speak against the bill. He declared that under it the ratepayers of Long Island “will not be adequately protected,” in fact would be the “least protected” ratepayers in New York State. An “out-of-state utility” will be running things with the state Public Service Commission limited to “making recommendations” to PSEG. There will not be, under the bill, adequate “accountability and oversight.”
He reviewed the history of LIPA and the vision behind it — to stop the Shoreham nuclear power plant and, with an elected board of trustees, decide Long Island’s energy future with an emphasis on clean, renewable energy.
But, he said, the “intent” of LIPA was “perverted.” It never was allowed to have an elected board as the law establishing LIPA provided. Instead, Mr. Cuomo’s father, Governor Mario Cuomo and his successor, Governor George Pataki, put in place a system of having the governor appoint most board members and the State Assembly speaker and State Senate majority leader naming the rest.
Back on Long Island last week, Mr. Thiele said “this was not reform. It will be the worst of both worlds — a shell public utility in LIPA and a private utility the PSC can only make recommendations to.”
“I would have liked to see a full public utility,” he said. Indeed, in session after session Mr. Thiele introduced bills to return to having LIPA function with an elected board. Every year that was not enacted in Albany. Now, “Long Islanders will not have control of their energy future. We had an opportunity to make things a lot better and we missed the opportunity.”
Also voting against the bill was Assemblyman Mike Fitzpatrick of Smithtown. Mr. Fitzpatrick, back on Long Island, commented that Mr. Cuomo has been “fairly criticized for ignoring LIPA, for letting it be leaderless.”
“It’s not a better mousetrap,” said Mr. Fitzpatrick, about the new set-up. ”This is not going to drive rates down.” Also, he has great concern for how “this major issue was rushed through at the very last minute. I get an uncomfortable feeling when there is such haste to get things done.”
It’s done now. LIPA has been all but eliminated. Meanwhile, public power utilities on which LIPA was based continue to run well. Among these is the Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) covering California’s state capital and surrounding 900 square miles, serving 1.4 million people. It has an elected board of seven trustees and a commitment to green energy. A nuclear plant, Rancho Seco, was closed by a vote of SMUD ratepayers at nearly the same time the LIPA formation stopped Shoreham.
“SMUD is your community-owned and not-for-profit electric service,” declares the utility on its home page (www.smud.org), “delivering on the promise of public power in the Sacramento region since 1946.” Why couldn’t the same be done on Long Island?