08/24/11 10:23pm

Richard Kessel, former chairman of the Long Island Power Authority and currently president of the New York State Power Authority, will be stepping down in two weeks from his NYPA post. With his departure, Long Island and New York State will be losing a crusader in government for safe, clean, renewable energy. Whether another such energy visionary will replace him is a big question.

Mr. Kessel’s career is a David-and-Goliath story. He has come up against many obstacles, especially of a gubernatorial kind. Although he will be out after Labor Day at NYPA, the largest state-owned utility in the nation, don’t count Mr. Kessel out. He has plenty of personal energy still and much to contribute.

He faced tragedy early. While a student at Colgate University aiming to go into law, his mother was struck with an ultimately fatal case of cancer. He left Colgate, returned to Long Island, and out of the tragedy devoted himself to politics — hoping to making changes in a society that, he concluded, was doing little about cancer.

He became an activist on consumer issues with a main target the bumbling, nuclear power-obsessed Long Island Lighting Company. Mr. Kessel wrote the introduction to my 1986 book about LILCO seeking to build seven to 11 nuclear power plants on Long Island with the Shoreham plant as its first — thus its title, “Power Crazy.”

He recounted starting his “new career in consumer advocacy” by going to a LILCO rate hearing where “every one of the first two dozen speakers was an elected official who had something negative to say about LILCO. Yet, after each speech, the elected official did his or her radio and television interview, smiled to the public, and left, not to be heard from again until the next rate increase hearing.”

That wasn’t Mr. Kessel’s way when he got into power. In 1983, he was plucked from his consumer activist role by Governor Mario Cuomo to become executive director of the New York State Consumer Protection Board. He was an active state consumer watchdog.

And he got into the middle of the battle against Shoreham through the creation of a Long Island Power Authority. LIPA would have the power to eliminate LILCO as a corporate entity if it persisted with Shoreham and its other nuclear plant projects. The strategy was based on the realization that there would be no chance of stopping LILCO’s nuclear scheme on the federal level because the Nuclear Regulatory Commission had never denied a construction or operating license for any nuclear power plant anytime, anywhere in the U.S. (and hasn’t to this day).

In 1989, Mr. Cuomo appointed Mr. Kessel LIPA chairman and he led negotiations to close Shoreham. And at LIPA he pushed solar and wind energy. When Governor George Pataki took office in 1995, he removed Mr. Kessel as LIPA chairman, but two years later, realizing Kessel’s worth, reappointed him. But in 2007, Eliot Spitzer was elected governor and not only removed him but, in Mr. Kessel’s view, he also killed his plan for a major offshore wind farm southeast of Jones Beach. “That was a huge mistake,” he says. “Long Island would have been the first in the U.S.” Now, the Cape Wind offshore wind project off Massachusetts will be first.

Mr. Kessel rebounded in 2008 when Governor David Paterson picked him as president of NYPA. There he pushed the kinds of energy projects he had advanced at LIPA, including a plan for offshore wind in the Great Lakes.

Why is he now leaving NYPA? “I want to spend more time with my family,” he says. At 61, he and his wife of eight years have a three-year-old son. As for any claim he is departing because of state probes into expenditures by NYPA, he says “that’s utter nonsense.”

Also, he wants the “new administration” of Governor Andrew Cuomo — “a good guy” — to “find someone to work with them.”

A sign Mr. Kessel might have been in trouble under Andrew Cuomo came when the governor appointed former NYPA Chairman John Dyson to chair NYPA in March. He and Mr. Kessel had long clashed.

“Stay with Kessel,” editorialized the upstate Watertown Daily Times in April about Mr. Dyson’s return to NYPA and its concern this could lead to Mr. Kessel’s departure.

About his replacement as NYPA president having his kind of energy commitments, he said, “I hope so because that’s the future. Investments in renewable energy and energy efficiency are critical and something I believe in. I hope that’s carried forward. But I’m not optimistic about it.”