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Suffolk Closeup: Power to the people

“A triumph,” declared State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. (I-Sag Harbor) about the inclusion in the new State budget of creation of a Legislative Commission on the Future of the Long Island Power Authority to perform a study that could lead to LIPA becoming a fully public utility.

The budget for the State’s 2022-2023 fiscal year, approved this month by the State Legislature and promptly signed by Gov. Kathy Hochul (D), establishes an eight-member panel to do the study that could lead to LIPA being “municipalized.” 

Its members will be appointed by the legislative leaders of both parties in both the State Assembly and State Senate. Guiding and assisting the commission will be an advisory committee of area “stakeholders” — a wide variety including representatives of business, labor, local governments, environmental groups, Native American tribes, educators and those involved in social justice issues.

The commission’s work can “serve as a path toward fully realizing what LIPA should have always been: a public power authority responsible to the customers it serves,” said Mr. Thiele, who represents Shelter Island, and is the prime sponsor in the Assembly for establishing the commission.

“For more than 25 years, ratepayers have been routinely failed by a third-party management model” that LIPA has used — contracting with private utilities to run the Long Island electric grid, Mr. Thiele said.  This “historic” move, he added, “gives motion to the actions necessary to implement a municipalized model that’s transparent and accountable.”

The prime sponsor of the measure in the State Senate was Sen. Jim Gaughran (D-Northport) who declared: “For-profit, billion-dollar companies running the electric grid guarantee Long Islanders two things: the highest electrical bills in the nation and unreliable service. This Legislative Commission on the Future of LIPA is tremendous, and is the first step in establishing true public power.”

Gov. Hochul’s working with Mr. Thiele, an Independent and previously a Republican, and Gaughran, a Democrat, in creation of the commission and its study mission, was a far contrast from the behavior of her predecessor as governor, Andrew Cuomo.

It was Cuomo who foisted a New Jersey-based utility, PSEG, onto this area as the most recent company running this area’s electric grid for LIPA. It replaced National Grid, which Cuomo decried for its performance during Superstorm Sandy in 2012.

There will be opposition no doubt to what could now happen involving PSEG.

The utility from Newark has prized its expansion here.

The original vision decades ago by those who crusaded for founding LIPA was for it to operate the area’s electric grid, and also run democratically with members of its elected board. A model was the Sacramento Municipal Utility District, which then and now operates the electric grid in a large chunk of California and has an elected board.

But Andrew Cuomo’s father, former Gov. Mario Cuomo, canceled having elections for LIPA board members, and his successor, George Pataki, formalized elimination of elections and instead had appointments, mostly by the governor and legislative leaders.

The Legislative Commission that will be set up will now consider “the method of governance” of LIPA. A return to the concept of democratic governance could be proposed.

It will also consider “improved transparency, accountability and public liability” and how there could be “improved reliability of the system.” National Grid’s terrible Superstorm Sandy performance was followed in 2020 by PSEG’s miserable performance in Superstorm Isaiah when 646,000 outages occurred. The panel will consider “improved storm response.”

And, it will, among other things, look at “increased reliance on renewable energy sources to produce electricity.” PSEG has been claiming in what a recent article by Mark Harrington in Newsday noted as $1.1 million spent “on self-promotion” since December that it’s “working on a cleaner more sustainable future.”

But PSEG is, in fact, a big nuclear utility. It operates the Salem and Hope Creek nuclear power plants in New Jersey and is part-owner of the Peach Bottom nuclear plant in Pennsylvania. Another original vision for LIPA was for it to have a commitment to safe, renewable, green energy. That came in the wake of the now defunct Long Island Lighting Company seeking to build seven to 11 nuclear power plants in Suffolk County.

Shoreham was the first to be completed but was shut down and decommissioned as a nuclear facility in the face of public and governmental opposition and the formation of LIPA to replace LILCO.