Sandy Relief...for Shareholders?

Superstorm Sandy exposed the vulnerabilities of the state’s power grid, knocking out electricity for weeks and damaging millions of dollars’ worth of utility infrastructure. The event exposed the fragility of our outdated transmission and distribution system and rallied calls for investments to modernize the grid in order to withstand future extreme weather events.

It is clear that hardening our infrastructure is imperative, but it should not have taken the storm of the century to make it a priority. The state’s investor-owned electric and gas utilities have been allowed to rely on a duct-tape mentality when it came to keeping the system running. Instead of making sound investments in modern technology, the utilities have streamlined their workforce and cut costs in order to maintain shareholder profits.

Now that Sandy has shown ratepayers just how weak our systems are, the utilities will finally have to move forward with a plan to bring our power grid into the 21st Century, right? Not so fast. Last week utility shareholders were given a glimmer of reprieve when Governor Cuomo’s Moreland Commission on Utility Storm Response and Preparation released a report that, among a series of recommendations, suggested the state consider repurposing ratepayer funds collected for clean energy projects to storm infrastructure resiliency measures. In effect, this proposal would reward the utilities for their system negligence by allowing them to tap into a ratepayer slush fund. You can just hear the sigh of relief from boardrooms across the state (Did I say state? I meant world, since all but one of our major utilities are owned by international corporations).

Draining the state’s clean energy funds to offset utility maintenance shortcomings simply pits climate adaptation against climate mitigation, as the efficiency and renewable energy projects supported by the state have served as the primary driver of the reduction of greenhouse gas pollution. While there are many good recommendations put forward by the Moreland Commission – starting with restoring competence to the Public Service Commission – this particular idea is bad news for New York’s energy future. The Moreland Commission even said so itself. When identifying yet to be spent clean energy funds, the Commission members warned that sweeping these funds would set a bad precedent and potentially stifle the growth of clean energy for years to come.

Governor Cuomo has demonstrated himself as a leader on climate change. He should continue to build on his legacy by blocking the inclusion of the Renewable Portfolio Standard, System Benefits Charge, Energy Efficiency Portfolio Standard, or Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative auction funds in utility resiliency plans. 

Read more of Conor Bambrick's blogs.