EDITORIAL: Wire you here? Maybe not

ONLY LITTLE KIDS believe that electricity comes from the wall. Grown-ups know that it comes from the pole on the street and then something happens in the basement before it charges the iPhone and runs the toothbrush. And there’s coal involved, too, burning somewhere far away with smokestacks. Don’t forget the Sun either, as long as you have one of those solar thingies on the roof that makes the meter spit out money when it runs the wrong way.

Every day we drive by huge towers that traverse the landscape draped with wires thicker that a python that’s just swallowed a kayaker, but do we think how much we depend every day on the current that flows through them, how impatient and angry and threatened we are if the power they carry is interrupted, how disconnected we feel when flipping a switch leaves us in the dark? Future generations may marvel at those towers as relic of our vanished civilization and wonder who’s buried beneath them. Maybe they’ll envy us for all the power we could waste. But here in the present local homeowners have more immediate concerns, because New York State Electric and Gas has plans to build a new, 11-mile-long, 115 kilovolt (KV) line through parts of Ghent, Chatham and Stockport. Is this any concern of people who don’t live along the proposed route for the line?

The company, which refers to itself by its acronym, NYSEG, is a subsidiary of a multi-billion-dollar Spanish energy firm called Iberdrola. At a public forum on its plans last week at the West Ghent firehouse, a NYSEG representative talked about the millions the company invests in upkeep and improvements to its power distribution systems. He repeated what the company has said since the project was formally introduced a little more than a year ago: that the new line is meant to complete a loop so that if one part of the system goes down, there will be a way to reroute the power and prevent blackouts affecting thousands of customers in the Churchtown area in the south central part of Columbia County.

The people who spoke at the forum opposed the line, and no wonder. Those who live on or near the proposed right of way route will lose property and the value of what they have left will undoubtedly be diminished. One person said he’ll lose his livelihood because the expanded path of the towers would destroy the trees he raises.

In the interests of disclosure this newspaper is a NYSEG customer, as are most of the people who live along the route. In this state consumers have a choice when it comes to the supplier of our electricity but not the company that delivers it. The Columbia Paper would face huge problems in a prolonged power outage or if electrical service became unreliable except in extreme circumstances. The question here is not whether NYSEG should develop better transmission systems. The issue is the standard the company should have to meet to accomplish its goals.

Iberdrola reports having made profits of about $1.1 billion in the first quarter of 2013, and its executives have a responsibility to the shareholders to maximize the return on investment. By contrast, the state Public Service Commission has an obligation to take into consideration both the need for the project and the public interest. So far, NYSEG has focused the debate on the need. Now it’s time to require a thorough examination of whether the proposed line is scaled appropriately to meet the need and what less intrusive options will address the problems NYSEG has identified.

Looking at this as a small project affecting a handful of property owners in three towns would miss the point. This is exactly the type of undertaking perfectly suited to developing innovative approaches to problems likely to recur in communities all over the county, state and nation. If the concept of the public interest has any meaning, this is the place to apply it.

Ghent Town Attorney Ted Guterman said last week that engineers hired by the town had suggested a feasible alternative using existing lines. If the company rejects that proposal, then it should explain why and turn its efforts to developing a similar approach.
NYSEG and other private electric utilities don’t need to be coddled. They do quite well these days, and it’s time for the PSC to require them to scrap this plan and offer one even better suited to the needs of Columbia County rate payers.

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