Ongoing coverage of the devastation Hurricane Maria left in Puerto Rico should be enough to prompt East End residents to plan for an age of energy independence separate from PSEG.
That’s how Michael McDonald of Washington, D.C.-based Global Resilience Initiatives Inc. sees it, and he’s working with East End officials to make energy dependence on a single source a thing of the past.
Mr. McDonald met with Shelter Island Green Options Advisory Committee members September 28 to talk about a time when PSEG would no longer have a monopoly providing electricity, but would have to compete for customers with energy cooperatives that would use 100 percent renewable solar power.
East Hampton and Southampton are already exploring the idea and have committed to working toward total renewable energy sources, Mr. McDonald said. He hopes that Shelter Island will get onboard and, perhaps, become part of a study getting underway at Columbia University to explore the methodology, hurdles and potential of the plan.
Solar power isn’t new to the Island or other venues on the East End, but under existing arrangements, those with solar power are only able to reduce their own electricity bills down to what could amount to a net zero cost of electricity for their properties. What they can’t do is get credit for energy beyond their own needs — energy that they could sell to neighbors, if Mr. McDonald has his way.
He envisions a day when the monopoly held by PSEG must either compete or collapse, just as a fossil fuel system did in Hawaii, resulting in a great decrease in electric costs to customers there. The same collapse of a monopoly energy system happened in Australia when customers gravitated to solar energy distribution systems, Mr. McDonald said.
What does that all have to do with post-storm conditions in Puerto Rico?
By creating what he calls a “distributive intelligent grid” of solar powered systems, it could have restored some of Puerto Rico’s electrical needs by now. Instead, much of Puerto Rico remains without any power and seems likely to be without it for what could be months.
The East End has battled hurricanes and nor’easters in the past, but has been spared a major hurricane such as Maria or the hurricane of 1938 that devastated large parts of the northeast.
The last major storm to hit the area was Sandy in October 2012.
Adding to concerns about storms, there’s the threat of terrorism that could result in the collapse of an electrical system and the picture becomes more bleak, Mr. McDonald said. But with many energy cooperatives operating, disruption would be more difficult, he said.
While the Green Options Advisory Committee is prone to embrace solar energy, there were several questions about methodology.
Former town engineer John Cronin noted that Level Solar, which has been a major solar provider on the East End, recently went out of business leaving thousands of customers with equipment, but questioning how those accounts would be serviced.
There was no direct answer.
Town Attorney Laury Dowd referenced the PSEG project to provide a new cable running between Shelter Island Heights and Greenport that would provide reliable service to the Island. Besieging PSEG with threats to set up energy cooperatives competing for business could jeopardize that project due to get underway this fall. Ms. Dowd said.
There were also questions about who pays costs of setting up the energy cooperatives. Krae Van Sickle, a member of the East Hampton Energy Sustainability Committee suggested by phone that private investors might be found to bear that initial burden.
That raised the question for Mr. Cronin about how much of a return such investors would want. Again, there was no clear answer.
PSEG Director of Communications Jeffrey Weir took exception to a number of statements by Mr. McDonald, starting with the suggestion that energy co-ops would save this Island from a lack of power that beset Puerto Rico during and after Hurricane Maria.
Not only would the solar panels be useless during the storm, he said, but wind damage would likely result in a lot of panels being destroyed.
As for a call for moving to 100 percent renewable energy, he said it would be an impossibility.
What would be possible is if the Island operated its own electric system just as Greenport Village does. But even Greenport uses PSEG backup. One aspect of its agreement on the cable project is to provide the village with a PSEG line that will serve as a backup to enable Greenport to restore power more quickly in the event of a failure.
Mr. Weir also produced data disputing Mr. McDonald’s claim that Hawaii uses 100 percent renewable energy resulting in the collapse of its electric company’s fossil fuel system.
Based on figures from 2016, on the Island of Hawaii, renewable energy sources account for 40.5 percent of electricity; on Oahu, 4.13 percent; and Maui, 24.35 percent of renewable energy.
The major fuel source is from oil at 67.9 percent on Oahu, 59.5 percent on the island of Hawaii; and 75.17 percent on Maui, Mr. Wier said.
Similar numbers regarding Hawaii come directly from Hawaiian Electric, Maui Electric and Hawai’i Electric Light.
Hawaii’s goal is to reach total renewable energy by 2045, according to the Hawaii State Energy Office.