VIEW FROM FLY CREEK
By ADRIAN KUZMINSKI • Special to www.AllOTSEGO.com
I attended a hearing recently in Binghamton on rate increases proposed by NYSEG for a number of projects, including a nearly three-fold expansion in the capacity of the DeRuyter gas pipeline serving Oneonta.
The hearing was run by the Public Service Commission (PSC), a New York State agency which is supposed to regulate utilities like NYSEG.
The atmosphere wasn’t very promising. The deserted streets and empty storefronts of downtown Binghamton were a reminder that the city, like much of Upstate, is a shadow of what it once was. The brutalist architecture of City Hall, where the hearing was held, evoked a prison rather than a civic space.
Nevertheless, about 70 people made their way into the City Hall chambers. After a brief presentation by three NYSEG representatives who, embarrassingly, were unable to answer a series of basic questions from the audience, the hearing itself began.
Even more embarrassing, only one PSC commissioner showed up, accompanied by an administrative law judge and a recording secretary.
The PSC ought to understand that not having a decent complement of commissioners show up at a hearing looks disrespectful to the concerned citizens who took the time and trouble to get there to testify.
The whole point of direct testimony is to put a human face on what are otherwise abstract issues. Citizens feel, rightly, that such appeals can influence commissioners in ways that nothing else can.
The alternative is to submit written comments to the PSC, but, given the lack of attendance by commissioners, it is hard to have full confidence that written comments will be as carefully examined as they should be.
The deeper question is why NYSEG and the PSC are even entertaining a rate case involving the expansion of a gas pipeline.
The recently passed Climate Leadership & Community Protection Act (CLCPA) in New York State mandates steep reductions in greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels like natural gas.
There’s no way an expansion in the capacity of the DeRuyter pipeline can be justified in the face of that law and current state energy policy.
To cover the cost of the pipeline, NYSEG is asking for combined gas and electric rate hikes of 27 percent. Speakers at the hearing complained of these steep increases being foisted upon ratepayers, especially in light of frequent outages and winter heat shutoffs. They also were concerned about the lack of incentives for air source heat pumps, and of failure to upgrade the electrical grid to accommodate local inputs from wind and solar farms.
Speakers also pointed out that the gargantuan amount of money to be spent on the DeRuyter pipeline – NYSEG estimates at least $203 million, and other sources up to $500 million – is money that would be diverted from investment in renewables.
What the critics of renewables never mention is that, once in place, they require NO FUEL. With fossil-fuel energy systems you not only have to build an infrastructure (wells, pipelines, refineries, power plants, compressor stations, tank trucks, gas stations, etc.) you then have to continuously feed that infrastructure with coal or gas or oil to keep it going.
Renewables like wind towers, solar panels, and air-source and ground-source thermal units, by contrast, need no feedstock once they are built. The only cost of renewables is their infrastructure. Their energy source – the sun, directly or indirectly – is free.
Consumers of fossil fuels, on the other hand, are burdened with the perpetual costs of the coal, oil and gas they have to buy to feed power plants, furnaces, vehicles, stoves, and so on.
According to a recent report issued by the U.S. Department of Energy “wind farms have gotten so cheap that you can build and operate them for less than the expected costs of buying fuel for an equivalent natural gas plant.”
The big battle here is about money, about where to allocate what limited investments we can afford for the public benefit. NYSEG’s current policy would lock us into fossil fuels for decades while making significant renewable energy development impossible.
This all but guarantees that our region will remain an economic backwater. Lack of investment in a renewable-friendly infrastructure will ensure that local power capacity remains limited, that consumers will be vulnerable to future rate hikes, and that the job opportunities the renewable-energy sector promises will not be realized in our area.
It’s time for the PSC to reflect state law and public interest and deny expansion of gas infrastructure proposed by NYSEG.
Adrian Kuzminski, retired Hartwick College philosophy professor and Sustainable Otsego moderator, lives in Fly Creek.