Solar’s Time Is Now

Introduced by our own Long Island Assembly Member, Steve Englebright (D-East Setauket), the Solar Jobs Act will help offset what is currently the most expensive and polluting slice of New York’s electricity mix, peak generation, with reliable power from the sun.

The calendar says summer isn’t even officially here and Long Islanders are already looking for relief. From the heat, sure, but also from those jaw-dropping summer electric bills that are starting to come in the mail.

The market cost of electricity is continuing its relentless upward trend, which doesn’t bode well for Long Island, where we already pay some of the highest utility rates in the nation. Those bills are particularly high in the summertime, since many of us rely on air conditioners to cool our homes and offices. And adding insult to injury, energy costs nearly double on the hottest days when LIPA switches on those more expensive “peaker” power plants to meet the increased demand.

Who pays? All of Long Island – businesses, residents and government. High energy costs are a serious concern for our fragile economic recovery, and they will only continue to rise unless New York State gets serious about a smarter long-term strategy. Fortunately, there is a solution all around us in the form of clean and abundant solar energy – if only Albany would give the green light.

Right now, our state legislators are weighing a major initiative, called the Solar Industry Development and Jobs Act, that will finally make good on our state’s solar potential. It’s a simple, market-driven proposal that calls on utility companies to gradually increase the amount of solar energy they purchase over time. The goal is to install 5,000 megawatts of solar capacity by 2025, enough to power more than 500,000 homes and get the Empire State back on top.

Introduced by our own Long Island Assembly Member, Steve Englebright (D-East Setauket), the Solar Jobs Act will help offset what is currently the most expensive and polluting slice of New York’s electricity mix, peak generation, with reliable power from the sun. Furthermore, by keeping energy dollars invested in the state, this legislation will have significant immediate and long-term benefits for our economy. It will create 22,000 new local jobs across a broad range of skill levels and generate an estimated $20 billion in economic activity. 

For Long Island, that means more jobs at local companies like KPS Solar. And by drawing on lessons learned in other states, the Solar Industry Development and Jobs Act is designed to deliver those high economic returns at a low cost to ratepayers.

Perhaps most importantly, this legislation will finally give solar energy the policy foundations needed to build a strong, self-sustaining local market. All across the country, states that have effective solar policies are seeing lower energy costs – which, in turn, drives additional demand for solar that lowers its cost even further (what economists call a “virtuous cycle”). In those states, utilities are already signing contracts for solar power that are at or below the price of natural gas. The Solar Jobs Act would effectively move New York’s solar industry beyond one-off projects by steadily building a robust new energy economy.

This solar initiative is far from pie in the sky. In fact, just look next door to see how well it is working. New Jersey implemented exactly the kind of solar program we are contemplating right now, and as a result, the Garden State installed more solar capacity last year than the Empire State has in its entire history. New Jersey now generates more than six times as much solar energy as New York. And because it has a first-to-market advantage, New Jersey has one of the most robust clean-energy sectors on the East Coast – including all those green jobs that should be ours.

The clean-energy future that Long Islanders have wanted for years could be a reality before legislators break for the summer. The Solar Jobs Act has bipartisan support in the Assembly and Senate, and is sponsored by 17 members of Long Island’s delegation (3 Senate, 14 Assembly). Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre) will play a critical role in its passage, and he has been supportive in recent discussions. The Solar Jobs Act also fits perfectly within Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s campaign promise to help create a thriving innovation economy.

In other words, there is no good reason New York can’t get this bill done in June. The Solar Jobs Act opens the door to a smarter, safer and more economical future. If Long Island continues to rely on fossil fuels, electric bills will only go up and up with each passing summer. The sun, on the other hand, is NOT raising its rates this year; sunlight will always be free and solar energy is getting cheaper all the time.

Kevin MacLeod, president of KPS Solar based in Bay Shore and staunch advocate for alternative energy, contributed to this article.

Essential Oversight of LIPA

As a Long Islander, NYS Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli has unique insight into our power and electric issues. Using the authority of his office to perform thorough audits into LIPA, DiNapoli makes the case that greater oversight is required to protect ratepayers.

Comptroller DiNapoli LIPA oversightThe Long Island Power Authority’s (LIPA) rates continue to be among the highest in the nation.  At the same time, LIPA customers — businesses and families alike —  don’t have the kind of oversight and protection that utility customers in the rest of the state enjoy.   That’s why it’s soessential for LIPA to work to improve its methodologies for calculating costs and provide ratepayers with clear and understandable  information on how rates and rate increases are determined.  I live on Long Island.  I understand and I share the concerns of  all those families and businesses.

Long Islanders need and deserve more protection from exorbitant and unwarranted rate increases.  That’s why I am using the power of my office to shed light on LIPA’s operations.

In addition to the annual filing requirements imposed by Public Authorities Law, my office annually requests  additional information from LIPA.  This year, we sought  supplemental data related to  the disclosure of LIPA’s overbilling for energy losses and other issues.

Recently, LIPA proposed returning a portion of the overbilled funds to ratepayers over a three-year period in the form of rate relief.  Three years is too long; LIPA should return this money to Long Island families as quickly as possible.  My office will continue to monitor how LIPA proceeds on this issue.

Last year, in response to concerns raised by Long Island legislators, my office reviewed LIPA’s preparations for Hurricane Earl.  Our review found that while LIPA appeared to have adhered to established storm protocols in response to Hurricane Earl, there were opportunities to improve the authority’s policies and procedures by exploring alternatives to committing to out-of-area crews so far in advance of a storm. This could save millions of dollars in pre-storm staging costs.

An analysis by my office of budgeted and actual storm cost expenses found LIPA’s 2010 storm costs exceeded the budgeted amount by approximately 640 percent.  The authority’s costs were estimated to total $200 million, while the authority budgeted just $27 million for this expense.  LIPA should take several steps to improve the methodologies used to establish storm cost budgets to balance the need for a rapid and aggressive storm response with the need to contain costs ultimately borne by ratepayers.  In addition, LIPA must provide a detailed accounting and justification of actual costs incurred once these costs are finalized.

In July 2010 my office issued an audit on LIPA’s Oversight of Contracts with National Grid. Our audit found that improvements are needed in LIPA’s monitoring of National Grid’s sales of emission credits from its power plants.  Contrary to contract requirements, National Grid did not report some sales to LIPA, and as a result, LIPA did not receive its share of the proceeds from these sales until we made LIPA officials aware of the issue.

While the failure to report the sales appeared to be an oversight on the part of National Grid, LIPA needs to improve its monitoring to prevent these kind of  errors and ensure that it receives its full share of the proceeds from such sales.

In July 2009 we issued an audit on Internal Controls Over Fiscal Operations that  found LIPA’s annual procurement report for 2007 was not complete.  A number of important contracts were not included in the report and the audit also revealed that several members of LIPA’s Board of Trustees did not always attend Board meetings and others did not receive training as required by law.  The audit recommended that LIPA take action to strengthen its internal controls.  Copies of these audits can be found on our website at www.osc.state.ny.us/audits.

Long Islanders should be getting better service and better protection from their utility company.  LIPA may be not be subject to regulatory oversight by the Public Service Commission (although I support legislation to provide that kind of oversight), but I am committed to keeping the public informed of LIPA’s performance and ensuring that LIPA is providing its ratepayers with the utmost level of transparency and accountability.  Other lawmakers have also said they will hold LIPA accountable as well.

The people of Long Island deserve better.

Building a Rock Wall on Long Island

Part of the insanity that my profession breeds is an incessant preoccupation with how things work, or more often than not, why they don’t. In this instance, constructing a secure and level foundation has my mind drawing the inevitable comparisons to the global economy, which is collapsing under its own weight

I’m building a wall. Not in the figurative or symbolic sense, but an actual, solid masonry wall in my backyard, simply because there isn’t one there. A perfectly logical endeavor in a heat wave. Until this point my hands have been useful for typing, forming a fist to shake madly at the heavens and guiding utensils from plate to mouth in what is commonly referred to as eating. Never have I been accused of being handy, making my latest pursuit slightly quixotic to those who love me.

Upon learning of this latest quest, my friend Johnny Gallo immediately understood the anodyne meaning behind it. It was Johnny whose quiet inspiration prompted me to turn my dream of a backyard vegetable garden into a reality by offering encouragement, with a measured degree of sarcasm, and the necessary tools to get started. I have written before of his stoic, old-school character, which explains why he showed up one day with a tamper, trowel, level and well wishes as I began excavating the area that will someday be framed by this wall.  

Johnny instinctively knew my undertaking was, as he referred to it, therapy. It’s why he demurred when our wives implored him to partake in my madness, lest I mutilate myself in the process. He simply said, “Let the man be.”

Part of the insanity that my profession breeds is an incessant preoccupation with how things work, or more often than not, why they don’t. In this instance, constructing a secure and level foundation has my mind drawing the inevitable comparisons to the global economy, which is collapsing under its own weight.

Even my diminutive contribution to our home landscape requires careful planning and assiduous attention to detail, particularly to the foundation. The foundation itself changes slightly, however, with every layer of dirt that is uncovered. Like anything built to be sustainable, it’s what is below the surface that is most important to the future. You cannot plaster over pieces of our infrastructure without properly incorporating or eliminating them altogether. Consider the living—or dying—case study that is Detroit. Public officials there are contemplating, and in some cases already executing, a plan to raze enormous tracts of blighted development with the realization that a barren landscape is perhaps better than a crumbling one.

There is little doubt our current economy must be rebuilt and history may or may not provide the answers and insight we seek. For better or for worse, the financial markets in the post-bailout period are acting as opiates and somehow shifted from being leading to lagging indicators. Bankers and traders are surrounding the hookah and inhaling the smoke being burned by Congress and the Fed, engaging in what my friend Peter Klein from UBS calls “interest rate euphoria.”

In theory, low interest rates encourage lending and, as a result, growth. But our interest rates are so low the banks have been playing the ultimate arbitrage game by taking cheap money from the government and investing it in securities with a higher yield. And despite the decade-long data from Japan, who handled their enduring recession in precisely the same manner without success, we continue to blithely walk the same path. At some point, interest rates must rise and federal dollars must be put to some use other than filling bankers’ coffers.

Nevertheless, the administration is in a no-win position. We will never know whether or not we avoided a total cataclysm in the months following the banking collapse in late 2008. Perhaps we did. It’s hard to argue with the logic that the combination of stimulus dollars and miniscule interest rates staved off a second Great Depression. Even if this is the case, we are simply extending the pain and laying the groundwork for a deep and long-term recession.

Perhaps the most positive sign to come from the White House recently was President Obama’s decision to make a $2 billion investment into two huge solar manufacturers in the United States. Generating this level of interest in micro-renewable technology will put more than just the manufacturing companies to work; it will have a ripple effect to the building trades and ultimately benefit the residential market.

Everywhere, that is, but here on Long Island.

The one gigantic, jagged rock in our foundation that makes it impossible to build anything sustainable and participate in the renewable energy revolution is the debt load that drowns our local utility. Until our federal and state elected officials come to the realization that forward movement is impossible as long as we are hamstrung by the $6 billion albatross that is Shoreham, we are destined to tread water, or worse.

Biotech, pharmaceuticals, medical research and information technology are all sectors of our local economy poised for explosive growth. For years, business leaders and elected officials have been calling for a renaissance in these areas, but have been stymied by the intractable high cost of living. While school taxes receive the majority of our ire, the fact is our primary export is the talented youth we educate on the Island; the trick is to create a job market and economic climate that encourages them to stay. Working on a plan to reduce the Shoreham debt over the next decade will help level the playing field to attract companies to the region and allow LIPA to encourage and finance residential investments into renewable technologies. Perhaps we can dream so far as to close one of our inefficient, belching gas plants on the Island and even imagine the day LIPA is no longer necessary.

Should we continue to ignore this debt on Long Island, our foundation will remain insecure. And while America may indeed succeed in establishing a new foundation and build a new wall we can be proud of, Long Island may find itself on the other side of it.

Stimulate My Package

shorehamAnd now for a tremendous over-simplification about the stimulus package. But first – a rant.

 

According to The Food Research and Action Center (FRAC), a U.S. based non-profit organization, the US Department of Agriculture considered 36.2 million people in the United States to be “food insecure” in 2007. Food insecurity is defined as “recurring and involuntary lack of access to food.” Of these 35.2 million Americans, 12.4 million are children.

 

One of W’s last acts in 2008 to preserve the banking system was to sign a $700billion stimulus package to save the banking industry. President Obama has already pushed through in 2009 an additional $787billion package to fix everything else.

 

Where was all this money when American children were going hungry in 2007? Oh, that’s right. China. We are borrowing all of this money from a country that routinely allows its massive rural population to go hungry because they have saved their pennies more wisely from selling crap to the United States for the past twenty five years.

 

I think we need to realign our priorities where emergency funding is concerned. Now, on to the stimulus package.

 

So the United States has managed to print/steal/borrow $787billion and is going to shower Americans with dollar bills like strippers in the topless nightclub rotunda of Congress. Cool. As much as I would like to “get me some of that” money raining down from the heavens I have an idea of how we can really kioli this package and ask for what is fair.

 

Twenty years ago environmental and energy advocates on Long Island successfully shuttered the Shoreham Nuclear Energy plant yet we have been living with this albatross ever since. Every year the Long Island Power Authority services the debt on the six billion dollars it took to build Shoreham. We cannot get ahead of it. Every one that moves here receives a little slice of nuclear debt like a finance charge on a parking ticket we all got in the 80’s.

 

Whatever your opinion of the larger-than-life Richie Kessel, he was responsible for transforming LIPA into a forward thinking enterprise and implemented ambitious efficiency programs. There were gaffs along the way and sometimes it appeared to be more about Richie than LIPA but he was an effective leader and persuasive communicator. His demon was the debt left over from the Shoreham debacle; ironically a project he was instrumental in shutting down.

 

Enter Kevin Law. Brilliant, affable and well-connected. Law has assembled an enviable team of professionals that are equally suited to run either county (and have). His team is bent on transforming and streamlining LIPA, but they too are strangled by the Shoreham debt that casts a shadow over us all.

 

This debt has left us with the highest energy rates in the nation. Many businesses can barely afford to stay here and we have little shot of attracting new, major companies who offer significant employment opportunities. Developers struggle too with creating new affordable homes for our young people, in large due to the high cost of energy production on the island. It affects every home owner, every landlord, every business and every municipality. The debt is crushing us and hampering LIPA’s ability to transform the way we think about energy and conservation on Long Island.

 

As awful and backwards as this sounds, LIPA cannot afford to help Long Islanders conserve too much energy because it simply costs too much to be LIPA. Every time a Long Islander installs solar power in his or her home, the rest of us pick up the freight. In a time when the green movement and energy efficiency will provide the best opportunity for Long Island to transform itself as a region, it is the ultimate conundrum.

 

This is where our Congressional leaders can help. Gary, Carolyn, Pete, Steve and Tim… listen up. There are 303 million people in the United States. Congress is handing out $787 billion dollars. That’s $2,590 per person in the U.S. if we were to evenly allocate the money spent among our population. Long Island has approximately 2.7 million people, which means our fair share of the stimulus package should be around 6.9 billion dollars. See where I’m going with this yet?

 

Retire LIPA’s debt.

 

Put money back in everyone’s pocket.

Allow Kevin Law to freely implement conservation and efficiency programs on Long Island.

Make us more competitive in attracting new companies to Long Island and help preserve existing businesses.

 

Go do your jobs and get our money. We never asked for Shoreham. We never asked for this debt. It’s your responsibility to get us out of this mess and give this region a fighting shot to reinvent itself and stay competitive for years to come.