Diesel generators that date to 1925 were shut down on Block Island last week as the nation’s first offshore wind plant, a few miles off its coast, began providing full power to the island’s electrical grid.
Earlier this year, final agreement was reached between the Long Island Power Authority and that same wind plant’s developer, Deepwater Wind, to provide power to Long Island’s South Fork. The electricity from 15 turbines at the wind farm, about 30 miles off Montauk, could begin flowing in six years.
Statoil, a Norwegian firm that won an astonishingly high-priced federal auction in December to lease 79,000 acres in the Atlantic Ocean 14 miles off Long Beach, is gearing up to face regulatory battles and to build community support it needs to start its own wind project. Statoil says it could be producing power for this region as soon as 2024. In addition, LIPA might have other choices for wind generation; a German company is getting ready to propose an offshore project south of Bayport.
Wind power from inland?
And it’s not just sea breezes that could be a power source. LIPA is expected next month to choose among bidders offering renewable generation to replace small aging gas plants known as peakers. One of the bidders, Invenergy, offers an ambitious proposal to build wind and solar farms in rural Ohio, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and North Carolina, and to send us that power via the existing grid and a new underwater cable. Land is so expensive and solar arrays need so much space that it’s unlikely there will be any new large-scale solar projects built on the Island.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo greatly expanded this market for renewable energy by setting a goal that the state will draw 50 percent of its power from green sources by 2030, and Long Island will be the centerpiece of that effort. New York stands with California, Oregon, Vermont and Hawaii as states with the highest standards for renewable energy.
Yet it was quite a torturous, if not ironic, path that got us to this point.
The failed Shoreham nuclear plant resulted in the state taking control from a private utility, the Long Island Lighting Co., 29 years ago. Instead of profits, however, it was politics that ruled local decision-making until superstorm Sandy exposed inadequacies and new state legislation overhauled LIPA’s governing structure in 2013. Often those politics were designed to appease local officials, resulting in bad decisions, such as not challenging assessments on overtaxed plants or awarding too-generous community payments in lieu of property taxes. Now that state control can be turned into a benefit if the political decisions support enlightened policy that embraces new technology and moves away from outsized dependence on fossil fuels.
Long Islanders will still have the same basic concerns about reliability and affordability, which must always be at the center of the conversation. But the moldy focus on how to salvage the oil- and gas-fueled baseload power plants of the last century must evolve. The latest study from LIPA, its long-awaited Integrated Resource Plan, and an independent review of a PSEG Long Island analysis of existing generation, must start a new dialogue.
Efficiency now a factor
The resource plan, as well as the PSEG review by the Brattle Group, a consultancy, confirm that Long Island and the nation are consuming less electricity, due in part to more efficient appliances, light bulbs and sustainable design. At the same time, the New York Independent Service Operator, which manages the flow of high-voltage power on the state’s grid, has reduced requirements for how much backup power LIPA needs to have at the ready and how much of that must be produced on the Island.
As a result, there is widespread agreement that no additional generation is needed until 2030. The current open bids are to replace aging peakers with renewables and more efficient plants. And when the decision is made in five to seven years about what should be built to meet new needs, it certainly won’t be enormous plants using fossil fuels. Even now, 54 percent of LIPA’s generation is idle at any given time; the national average is 44 percent.
Another reason for reduced power need is rapidly changing energy markets — from competitively priced renewables to plentiful and low-cost natural gas. The studies conclude that there is no need to rebuild — euphemistically called repowering — the older plants at Port Jefferson and Island Park. The plants are still used, but sparingly, and their value has depreciated. Contracts with owner National Grid on those plants, as well as the workhorse of the system in Northport, expire in 2028 and shouldn’t be renewed. The studies also confirmed that there is “no compelling reason” to build a second Caithness plant in Yaphank. LIPA says going forward with repowering and a second Caithness plant would increase customer bills by $5 billion through 2030.
These findings are going to make some communities on Long Island and their elected officials very displeased because the $189 million LIPA customers pay for the taxes on these old plants only benefit the jurisdictions in which they are located. But the time for stalling and maneuvering is over. Incredibly, one of the reports that buries the dream of repowering was requested by the State Legislature, hoping it would prove the opposite.
LIPA’s tax grievance litigation against Nassau County, and Brookhaven and Huntington towns, should be settled so plans for other uses of the sites of those aging plants can move forward. Port Jefferson, for example, is ideally situated for one of the new and more efficient peaker plants LIPA will need in the near future.
Watch trends, plan ahead
Will the findings of today change? Of course. The key assumption in these studies, that the trend toward reduced consumption will continue, must be closely monitored. If it changes, LIPA will need to have new power sources in place before 2030. The premise that the massive wind project off Long Beach will soon supply bountiful renewable energy could dissolve if state and federal regulatory hurdles mount and if there are construction delays.
Keeping the old standards, the old thinking and the old politics will lead to costly mistakes. Almost half of a LIPA bill, the charges called “power supply,” rest on these decisions. Managing them smartly can not only keep our already high cost of electricity in check, but power Long Island into the future.