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Laura Curran: Texas crisis a wake-up call for LIPA

People line up to enter Costco in Pflugerville,

People line up to enter Costco in Pflugerville, Texas, on Feb 16. The Texas power grid failed in the face of a record winter freeze. Credit: AP/Ricardo B. Brazziell

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has called for an investigation to determine what caused his state’s electrical grid to fail — leaving millions without power to heat their homes during record-breaking cold temperatures.

While at first it might seem a mystery how Texas — with a tradition of independence and rich with energy resources — finds itself in such a place, the situation shows how fragile the power supply can be when system operators do not plan for the future. The crisis underscores the fact that Texas operates an independent power grid, meaning that most of Texas is not connected to the country’s two other grids. This leaves it with a limited ability to pull in electricity from other areas when something goes wrong.

The event is a wake-up call for Long Island. The risk of an electrical grid failure resonates here, where we rely on the Long Island Power Authority and its operator, PSEG Long Island, to keep electricity flowing. Sadly, LIPA’s performance during and after Superstorm Sandy and PSEG’s failure in responding to Tropical Storm Isaias do not inspire confidence in the face of a potential Texas-level occurrence.

But what is the alternative?

Some public officials and residents have called for LIPA to end its contract with PSEG and operate the system with its own public employee workforce, a process referred to as municipalization. Although this would undoubtedly bring some benefits, it would likely insulate LIPA from industry standards and best management practices. We should examine whether LIPA should continue to partner with the private sector but improve on that relationship. When done right, public-private partnerships blend municipal ownership and regulation with private-sector expertise and state-of-the-art technology. PSEG must do better, however, or LIPA should move swiftly to find a new operator.

Our immediate focus, though, should be on holding LIPA to its responsibility to respond meaningfully to the concerns of Long Island residents. Nassau County expects to settle LIPA’s legal challenges to assessments on its Nassau power plants on favorable terms on par with LIPA’s Northport power plant settlement, including comparable settlements with affected school districts. I have insisted on a settlement that makes sure LIPA strengthens its role as a public steward acting in the best interests of local communities. After all, LIPA does not operate to benefit shareholders, but rather to protect the interests of ratepayers and Long Island’s economy. This mission is especially important in one of the affected school districts, which the census designates as a distressed area and which receives about 40% of its budget from LIPA taxes.

Therefore, in addition to annual payments to the affected school districts and other jurisdictions, the settlement requires LIPA to create a community advisory board to gather input on the reuse of its properties as the power generation market evolves to react to climate change and local needs. LIPA must see a clear lesson on the dangers of going it alone like Texas thought it could. And it must treat its host communities with greater respect.

Climate scientists are unsure whether we are in store for more extreme winters from an unstable polar cap. Does it make sense for Long Island to depend on natural gas to generate power? Are microgrids a good idea? Is LIPA planning adequately for the transmission of offshore wind power? Will increased battery storage help? What is the customer impact of variable rate pricing?

LIPA must listen to the community to help wrestle with questions like these now, or someday it will be the beleaguered residents of Nassau and Suffolk asking questions about what went wrong and why.

Laura Curran is Nassau County executive.