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Could less energy usage alter LIPA's plans?

A new survey shows LIPA ratepayers are among

A new survey shows LIPA ratepayers are among the least satisfied customers. Credit: Ed Betz, 2011

The Long Island Power Authority's multipronged plan to secure energy from a variety of new sources could face an unexpected speed bump this year: customers are using less energy.

At a board meeting last week, LIPA officials said they were stumped by residential energy sales that are about 10 percent below projections for the first four months of the year; commercial customers are 4.5 percent below projections.

"This is a real change in use-per-customer that we've been seeing," chief operating officer Michael Hervey told trustees last week, saying the numbers excluded factors such as warmer weather and efficiency programs that aim to cut usage.

Most immediately, the lower number means lower-than-expected sales for LIPA -- to the tune of around $50 million so far this year. And while it's still too early to say that four months indicates a trend, it's enough to have LIPA staffers monitoring the situation.

"We don't have a real good answer to that question yet," chief financial officer Michael Taunton told trustees.

The reduction comes at a critical juncture for LIPA: Just last week, trustees approved a measure to renew nearly $1 billion in contracts over 15 years for four garbage-to-energy plants on the Island. And trustees are reviewing at least 10 separate proposals for new cleaner energy sources -- up to 2,500 megawatts. At its peak, LIPA uses close to 6,000 megawatts.

LIPA is also negotiating with National Grid for a renewal of existing local plants, including the largest, in Northport.

Hervey insisted that the reduction in customer usage, at least for now, won't alter the authority's longer-term planning for more energy. That's because LIPA's plant needs are based on peak usage -- and the highest usage to date was recorded last summer.

But if the drop-off continues this summer and through the year, LIPA may re-evaluate.

"It goes to long-term planning," trustee David Calone said Wednesday. "If it [the reduction] is tied to the economy and it's cyclical, that's one explanation. If it's tied to consumer behavior, that's a different thing."

People with knowledge of the proposals said LIPA's list of projects could include new plants in Kings Park, Shoreham, and an expansion of Caithness Llc's Long Island Energy Center in Yaphank, along with a battery-storage facility, and a second Atlantic cable. Hervey wouldn't discuss any of them.

Trustee Neal Lewis, who heads The Sustainability Institute at Molloy College, said he agrees with the assessment that the economy is likely the reason for the usage drop. "But in the long run if we can get people to use less energy, whether efficiency or just habits, then in that respect it's largely a positive statement."

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