Past ties to two companies that were awarded state grants to conduct microgrid studies, including one on Long Island, will not force the chairwoman of the state Public Service Commission to remove herself from involvement in the matters, the agency said.
Last month, the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority awarded more than a dozen $100,000 grants to municipalities and companies to examine the feasibility of microgrids, which allow critical services to operate in the event of a wider power outage.
Anbaric Transmission and Viridity Energy were among the entities contracted to municipalities that received awards. PSC chairwoman Audrey Zibelman, who is also a NYSERDA board member, was a founder and past chief executive of Viridity. She divested her ownership in the company after Politico New York reported her interest. Microgrids have been listed as a part of the state's Reforming the Energy Vision, an initiative that is being overseen by the PSC.
Anbaric is an energy development company that also has applied to the state to build a 500-megawatt undersea transmission line from New Jersey to Long Island. Anbaric managing director Ed Krapels was a co-founder of Viridity with Zibelman, and Viridity is described as a "sister company" of Anbaric.
Viridity was cited among the microgrid award winners for a project in the Sunnyside rail yards in Queens. Anbaric won awards to study microgrids in Freeport and Staten Island.
Earlier this year, when Newsday asked about Zibelman's ties to Krapels and Anbaric, PSC spokesman James Denn said the chairwoman would recuse herself from involvement in an Anbaric undersea cable known as Poseidon to avoid "even the appearance of a conflict of interest." LIPA and PSEG have not approved a contract with Poseidon.
But Denn said the issue is different with the Anbaric microgrid awards: "Chair Zibelman has no financial interest in Anbaric, and based on the advice of counsel and DPS's ethics officer, there is no conflict of interest regarding matters Anbaric has before the PSC, the Department of Public Service, or NYSERDA. Therefore there is no reason for her to recuse herself from any matters involving Anbaric."
Zibelman recused herself in the Poseidon case "because that matter was expected to be controversial and the recusal decision was made in an effort to avoid any distractions from that case," the agency said.
When Zibelman held stock in Viridity, she abstained from NYSERDA board actions involving that company, the PSC said. The agency also noted that "as a general matter, NYSERDA's board does not select projects for funding. That is typically done by technical evaluation panels."
NYSERDA's board does approve final execution of contracts with grant recipients.
The PSC said Zibelman "did not play a role in selecting any of the microgrid projects."
Russ Haven, legislative counsel at the New York Public Interest Research Group, a government watchdog, said Zibelman's decision not to recuse herself would carry more weight if it came from an independent ethics group such as the Joint Commission on Public Ethics.
"While it may well be that she feels she's cleared the decks in terms of potential conflicts, the best course is to go to an independent ethics body such as JCOPE, to get that ethics letter," he said. JCOPE "is there to call balls and strikes" on state ethics matters, he said.
Denn didn't respond to an inquiry on whether Zibelman had received such clearance.
Freeport last week said it chose Anbaric to conduct the feasibility study for its "expertise, proven track record and willingness to invest resources in the Freeport community."
Anbaric attorney John Dax, in a letter to PSC secretary Kathleen Burgess on Sept. 2, made reference to Denn's statement about the appearance of conflicts on Poseidon, noting that he was writing "to confirm for the record that the chair has recused herself from this case and all related matters."
Anbaric "also anticipates that the Chair would likewise recuse herself from any other Anbaric project that is or may come before the Department or Commission," Dax wrote.
Dirk van Ouwerkerk, Anbaric's microgrid director, said the letter wasn't referring to potential microgrid conflicts, but rather Poseidon. Anbaric is working on five state microgrid projects, including one upstate that could be as large as 100 megawatts. The company intends to submit bids for other microgrids on Long Island, including a South Fork request for proposals and one expected in Far Rockaway.
"There is a potential that the PSC would review some of the circumstances, but I'm not really sure they would come in on individual projects. I don't see that yet," he said.