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Suffolk Closeup: Power plays

The Long Island Power Authority board of trustees voted 8-to-1 last week for a new contract with PSEG to operate this area’s electric grid.

However, that could be superseded by legislation introduced by State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele, Jr. (I-Sag Harbor) and State Senator James Gaughran (D-Northport) to “restructure” LIPA to be a “true public utility” and operate the grid itself.

The legislation, introduced earlier this month, notes that LIPA was established in 1986 by the State Legislature to facilitate the “closure of the Shoreham nuclear power plant” of the Long Island Lighting Company because of the plant “threatening the economy, health and safety … of the service area.” The “second purpose … was to replace LILCO with a publicly owned power authority.”

In 1992, the bill states, “LIPA bought the Shoreham nuclear power plant” and it was “fully decommissioned in 1994.” And in 1995, “LIPA replaced LILCO as the electric company for its service area.”

“However,” the measure continues, “LIPA was never established as a true ‘publicly owned power authority’ as originally envisioned by the State Legislature. Rather, since 1995, LIPA has opted for a third-party management model.”

“LIPA is the only utility in the nation that is operated under a third-party management model. This model has repeatedly failed its customers,” the bill declares. “There has been a lack of transparency, oversight, and accountability. This failure has been most dramatically evidenced in the unacceptable storm response by LIPA and its third-party contractors during Superstorm Sandy in 2012 and Tropical Storm Isaias in 2020.”

“After more than 25 years of unsatisfactory management under the third-party management model, a better alternative must be implemented,” it says.

The legislature “hereby creates a commission to provide the legislature with the specific actions, legislation, and timeline necessary to restructure LIPA into a true publicly owned power authority … whereby the authority would directly operate the utility as a true public power authority.” Further, “The public must participate in that process so that the new LIPA becomes transparent with proper oversight and accountability.”

This Legislative Commission on the Future of the Long Island Power Authority would be made up of four members of the Assembly and four of the Senate. There would be an “advisory board” of “not more than 15” persons with wide-ranging representation “to actively assist and advise the commission.”  A “final report” would be issued no later than April 1, 2023.

In an interview last week, Mr. Thiele said the “goal” is to have LIPA “restructured” and its third-party manager — in recent years Newark, New Jersey-based PSEG—eliminated in two years’ time. The “timetable” in the bill calls for LIPA restructuring to happen “no later than 2025,” but Mr. Thiele said it could be done much sooner. Mr. Thiele’s district includes Shelter Island.

The Thiele-Gaughran measure was discussed by LIPA CEO Tom Falcone during the LIPA board meeting and he said LIPA would “work with” the state.

Thereafter, the LIPA board voted on a contract to continue with PSEG. The only no vote was cast by trustee Dr. Nancy Goroff, a professor in the Chemistry Department at Stony Brook University.

She said the “fundamental problem is it’s a contract with a service provider that has not delivered in the past.” She cited the Thiele-Gaughran bill seeking “municipalization” as preferable “over what we have now.” The other eight trustees voted yes.

Among several members of the public providing comments at the LIPA board meeting was Fred Harrison, a long-time opponent of the Shoreham nuclear power plant, who emphasized a need for “a fully non-profit electric system.” He said the Thiele-Gaughran legislation would lead to LIPA being “what it should have been.” He said “the two Cuomo’s kept us from our goal.”

Former Gov. Mario Cuomo (D) eliminated having LIPA board trustees elected, instead having most trustees appointed by the governor and the remainder by Assembly and Senate leaders. Subsequently, his son, Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D), was central, in his characteristic hardball style, in bringing in PSEG to operate the electric grid for LIPA.

Ryan Madden, sustainability organizer for the Long Island Progressive Coalition, testified that the bill provides “a roadmap for fully public power. We need a democratic LIPA.”

Not only has LIPA lost what was supposed to be its democratic basis, but an  example of how far LIPA has gotten away from its original purpose of challenging nuclear power came at the board meeting, when CEO Falcone spoke about future sources of energy.

He said electricity would play a much greater role and referred to solar and wind power, adding “we’re going to have nuclear in the future.”