EDITORIAL: Less power to the people?

JUST IN TIME for the holidays there’s a gift no family in Columbia County should be without: the 83-page order from the state Public Service Commission on new electricity transmission lines in our backyards. Ask Santa for your copy of “All I want for Christmas is 345 kilovolts.” You’ll treasure it forever…. Really.

Or maybe it will only seem like forever. Last week the PSC approved in principle the need for new transmission lines and the taller towers to support them. But who knows how long they’ll last. They could outlive the familiar towers already in place, some of them for two generations.Do we really need to replace the high voltage towers that parade through the county? An agency called the New York State Independent System Operator (NYSIO), which acts as the state’s electricity traffic cop, says we do. Local residents, some of whom live along or near the existing power line rights of way, say their research proves we don’t need the lines and neither do New York City and its suburbs, although the new lines are intended serve the metropolis.

So in one sense this isn’t about us, although if you live in Stuyvesant, Stockport, Greenport, Claverack or Livingston, you might think differently about the PSC’s latest decision.

Do the people of the city–or others on their behalf–have a right to obstruct our vistas, which attract tourists here and keep our economy going? Let them make their own electricity to power fat-screen TVs or run subways that keep a couple million people from driving cars each day. Sure they’re our fellow citizens and sometimes family, too. But these new lines and towers are a lot for them to ask of us, because we have to live with them every day.

This PSC order, all fourscore and three pages of it, reads as dry as burnt toast but it lays out the case better than most accounts of why it’s so complicated to solve our energy needs. Take just one example. Governor Andrew Cuomo said it was a state priority to transmit electricity generated upstate to the NYC area, in part because there are renewable energy sources upstate, like wind power, that could make lots of electricity for 8 million people in and around the Big Apple. That’s reasonable.

But NYSIO says the power grid in our area is getting old and needs to be replaced because it causes an electricity traffic jam during heat waves, when every air conditioner in the city is set on Max Cool. And NYSIO recommends, as does the PSC, that new, higher capacity lines are the answer to this “congestion.”

Opponents of new lines say congestion isn’t nearly the problem it’s made out to be and it can be managed in part because a big new power plant closer to the city will soon be built. That’s great. But wait, the PSC says the new power plant will burn natural gas, which is cleaner than coal or oil, but it’s still a fossil fuel. And gas is cheap because we drill for it by fracking, which releases huge amounts of methane, one of the most potent greenhouse gasses known. And to deliver more gas to more power plants in the future we’ll need more pipelines. The last folks to propose a new pipeline in Columbia County were quickly shown the door.

The saddest part of sorting through the PSC decision is the absence of creative ideas for reducing our energy needs. Likewise, there’s no passion for larger goals to guide this debate. This is not the fault of the PSC, which has a duty to determine which projects meet current public policy objectives and move those projects forward. And it’s not the fault of the power line opponents; their passion remains on the outside looking in.

The flaw lies in state political leadership distracted by scandal and conflict. Where’s the urgency about our energy policy? Where’s the enthusiasm at the top? For all his ideas about energy policy the governor displays little engagement. But he’s the best hope we have. He changes his mind… a lot. And sometimes things get better. He’s already modified his power line plan once. He should do it again.

It’s an uphill battle now for opponents of the local power line upgrade. But they should not be discouraged. Go over the head of the PSC. Put Governor Cuomo on the spot. Demand a more coherent, responsive energy policy. Only public pressure will convince him make it a priority.

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