EDITORIAL: See where power lies

THAT SATURDAY WAS PERFECT for raking. A warm autumn had left leaves hanging on late into the season and the sunny day made the job almost tolerable. In the village we dump them thigh-high along the curb and Monday morning the municipal vacuum sucks them up. It’s a huge waste of energy but the lawn looks so tidy afterward.

But that night fake summer gave way to 7″ of wet snow. The village plow came by early Sunday. It spread a snow-and-leaf guacamole across my sidewalk and my neighbor’s. That and the yew tree bent nearly horizontal from the snow’s weight were the worst of it for us. Not so for the 1,451 customers of who lost power supplied by NYSEG, the utility company that serves much of western and central Columbia County. A friend in Canaan reported 18″ of snow and electrical service out for days.

NYSEG reported Tuesday morning, more than 48 hours after the main snowfall, that despite high winds it had reduced the number customers in the region without power to “fewer than 1,000” from the peak of more than 20,000. The company deployed 149 of its own crews plus 140 line crews from other utility companies in the region. To somebody who didn’t lose power, that sounds like an effective response. People left in the dark and cold for days probably feel differently. Their experience is a taste of what the future holds for all of us.

Soon enough it won’t be necessary to say: Yes, this storm was only weather and we’ve seen it all before. Disruptive storms make news. Get over it. This storm was no Hollywood-scale disaster. But you can bet as nasty storms become more common they will also become more expensive.

NYSEG builds the cost of outages and disaster recovery into its financial planning. It has deep pockets. NYSEG and its sister utility RG&E, which serves the Rochester area, are subsidiaries of Avangrid, which is listed on the New York Stock Exchange. Avangrid has about $30 billion in assets in 25 states. It employs 7,000 people. In New York and New England alone it has over three-million electricity and natural gas customers. The company’s Renewables arm produces 6.3 gigawatts “primarily through wind power… across the United States.” It can afford to upgrade the local grid.

Another thing worth knowing about NYSEG’s parent, Avangrid, is that Avangrid is 81.5% owned by Iberdrola S.A., a Spanish company that says it produces electricity for 100 million people and is “one of the largest electric utilities in the world.” That sounds scary–our power controlled by a multinational in Europe. What if they do something we don’t like?

No matter who owns the company, it still has to adhere to federal and state regulations. But it does appear to behave in a way different from many domestic companies. How so? One of Iberdrola’s company policies is meeting specific targets for reducing its emissions of carbon dioxide. It vows to “reduce its CO2 emissions intensity by 30% in 2020” compared to 2007 emissions, and it plans to be “carbon-neutral” by 2050.

That looks good on a website and the indications are that the company is neither dodging its role in climate change nor its responsibility to address the threat. It could be more about public relations than performance. But a recent Thompson Reuters report found that Iberdrola achieved one of the greatest reductions in greenhouse gas emissions among a list of the world’s largest emitters. And its U.S. affiliate was among the 81 major firms in this country to sign on last year to President Obama’s American Business Act on Climate Pledge.

NYSEG and its customers, not to mention everybody else on this planet, face what by now is a well-known twofold challenge: cut the greenhouse gases we release and prepare for the impact caused by the damage we’ve already done. What may not have been so clear before last month’s presidential election is that those who care about the future of humanity must now look for allies in unexpected places.

NYSEG should actively solicit suggestions and concerns from its customers about how to mitigate the impact of storm damage outages in ways adapted to this area. As a first step NYSEG and the other utilities serving the county should underwrite efforts to educate and learn from the public. If we’re going to rescue ourselves and the world around us we need all the help we can get to change the way we live.

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