Advocates praise energy provisions for the poor

Capital New York | March 31, 2015 | Column by David Giambusso

Low-income communities that historically bear the brunt of ill-conceived energy policy fared well in the first official ruling on the state's Reforming the Energy Vision, advocates say.

Solar panels. (AP Photo/Moises Castillo)

The R.E.V.'s first official phase, issued in February by the Public Service Commission, makes several provisions for low-income communities, including emissions standards and an allowance for utilities to own renewable energy sources that serve poorer residents.

Advocates say the rules handed down by the P.S.C. are a good first step.

"This, I really believe, could be a game changer and could trigger an overall enhancement of local emission rules as well as how we think about them," said Raya Salter, an attorney and utility advocate with the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Utility ownership of power sources was a major sticking point in the debate that led up to the first ruling on R.E.V., the state's regulatory reimagining of New York's grid to incorporate renewable power and energy efficiency.

Private generators said they were relieved at the state's decision to limit the amount of power generation the utilities could own in phase one. Since deregulation in the 1990's, utilities have been largely barred from owning their own power sources. The private industry warned that if utilities were allowed to own renewable generation it would chill the private market and stifle innovation.

Salter praised the R.E.V. language which provides a significant loophole that will allow utilities to build clean power sources that serve low-income customers.

"Demonstration projects, partnering with low-income communities, identifying areas of system need—you can see, especially in New York City, how wide those exceptions could be," she said.

Con Edison was already exploring how to use energy efficiency, demand management and microgrids to serve low-income communities in Brooklyn and Queens. But how these projects will roll out and what kind of power sources they will use remain largely a mystery.

Advocates also praised emissions standards called for in the first phase of the state plan.

"As a condition of our policy action, we direct Staff to cooperate with [the Department of Environmental Conservation] to develop rules that avoid or mitigate the potential for harmful local emissions," the P.S.C. order reads.

It goes on to instruct the Department of Public Service to survey what areas are already overburdened with emissions and possibly prohibit certain power sources in those areas.

While clean power is one of the central goals of R.E.V., there is still potential for microgrids—small, local, independent power grids—to use diesel and other types of generators that can contribute to greenhouse gas emissions.

That the state is indicating early on there will be limits on what can be done in poorer communities is a plus for advocates.

"The order from the P.S.C. was so critical in terms of really focusing in on the need for environmental justice and low-income communities to be protected from some of the traditional harms that have gone on in these communities," said Cecil Corbin-Mark, policy director for WeAct for Environmental Justice.

He, too, praised the potential access for low-income communities to the new sources of power envisioned by the state, but said he was awaiting a more detailed plan on how the programs would become manifest. Low-income communities often struggle with their utility bills and are subject to shut-offs which cascade into a series of other economic problems. With potentially more expensive power sources on the market, that situation could worsen.

"The process needs to take that fully into account and design a new platform that eliminates those kinds of energy insecurity issues," Corbin-Mark said. If not, he said, "the energy insecurity they're already experiencing is just going to widen. What that would mean is insecurity would turn into poverty."

James Denn, a spokesman for the P.S.C., said low-income communities would be a top priority as the R.E.V. moves forward.

"The P.S.C. has made it crystal clear that enabling low-income and moderate-income communities to benefit from and directly participate in the positive changes now sweeping New York’s electricity sector remains a high priority," he said.

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Advocates praise energy provisions for the poor
PAUSE, People of Albany United for Safe Energy
PAUSE is a grassroots group of individuals who have come together to promote safe, sustainable energy and fight for environmental justice. We engage the greater public to stop the fossil fuel industry’s assault on the people of Albany and our environment.