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LIPA to hold public hearings on new PSEG contract, 'solar tax'

Justin Bell, director of rates and regulation for

Justin Bell, director of rates and regulation for LIPA Credit: Newsday/Mark Harrington

LIPA this week is holding a series of virtual meetings that will allow ratepayers to weigh in on rule changes that include a newly proposed "solar tax" and on its revised contract with PSEG Long Island.

The virtual meetings, taking place Monday and Thursday, require attendees and speakers to register for the sessions.

The first of the sessions took place Monday morning, looking at a list of proposed changes to LIPA's official rules, or tariff.

Among the proposals is one that would allow the utility to begin collecting $5 to $10 in "customer benefit contributions" from new solar customers starting Jan. 1, to pay for programs that solar customers with smaller electric bills generally don't contribute to.

LIPA during the Monday morning meeting noted that 83% of rooftop solar adopters have higher incomes than the local median income and that lower-income customers are half as likely to adopt solar than other ratepayers.

Justin Bell, vice president of public policy and regulatory affairs for LIPA, said the new charge amounts to a "fairness issue," for which 15 other states have taken similar actions. The concept, he said, is to assure new solar customers "contribute to the cost of essential programs," and that the 89 cents per kilowatt charge is smaller than other utilities.

But critics said the charge could halve or entirely wipe out the money solar customers save on their monthly bills when the cost of financing loans is included, and said it makes no sense to adopt it now as the state is looking to increase green energy.

"This is a terrible idea," said Adrienne Esposito, executive director of Citizens Campaign for the Environment. She said the plan "really just appears to be a scheme for LIPA to financially benefit from solar."

Jonathan Cohen, government liaison for SUNation Solar Systems, an installer, noted the charge can be increased each year, and could disincentivize solar. "It will immediately and dramatically reduce the annual savings for solar customers."

LIPA also introduced new rules for Freedom of Information Law requests, characterizing most of the changes as "merely housekeeping" updates that would clarify language or to help defray utility costs.

But a letter being circulated to local lawmakers by Assemb. Steve Englebright (D-Setauket), indicates otherwise, saying the new language included "substantive updates that could diminish the ability of the public to obtain access to records of the authority, contrary to both the spirit of FOIL and the plain language" of state Public Officers Law and Committee on Open Government implementing regulations.

The letter notes, among other things, that the new rules would "change the FOIL rules" to require that a record request may be made in person only if the person seeking the records schedules an advance appointment with the records officer.

Englebright's letter also called the new rules relating to fees charged for records "ambiguous," and noted the proposal would "repeal several aspects of the FOIL regulations."

The Monday sessions also were to include discussion of changes to the Long Island Choice program designed to provide alternative energy options for Long Island customers by contracting with third-party energy service companies. Other issues include: improvements to community distributed generation programs; discussion of LIPA's 2022 budget, including increases in the delivery charge starting Jan. 1; and a proposal to suspend daily service charges during prolonged outages.

Registration for the Monday evening session on the same topics is available here.

On Dec. 2, LIPA is holding a single session at 6 p.m. to accept comments about its revised contract with PSEG. The new contract, with the recent backing of the state Department of Public Service, puts more of PSEG's annual $80 million fee at risk for failure to perform, and gives LIPA more flexibility to terminate the contract if PSEG doesn't comply with the long list of new terms. To attend and speak on the LIPA contract with PSEG, ratepayers can register here.

LIPA trustees will vote on the PSEG contract at a meeting on Dec. 15, but it's not likely to take effect until sometime in 2022, pending approval from the state attorney general and the comptroller.

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