Magnarelli: Shedding Light on New York’s Power Problems

September 4, 2003
As the lights went out almost three weeks ago, the true, bright face of New York shone through, radiating the good nature and good will for neighbor and community that we’ve seen time and again in the face of calamity. It was a beautiful scene in the darkness, as people reached out to other people, and as ordinary citizens shouldered extraordinary civic duties in whatever way they could.

At the same time, though, the blackout cast a spotlight on the problems we absolutely must solve. There is no good reason why a problem in Ohio or Canada – or in another part of the state – should lead to a flood of outages in Central New York. In an economy as tough as ours and in an era as reliant on electronics, there is no way we’re going to be able to attract new businesses and new jobs to our region if companies wonder whether their lights will stay on and their computers will keep operating. We need to make sure they do.

It’s not going to be easy because we have a lot of catching up to do. Statewide, the Pataki Administration hasn’t done nearly as much as they should have to build a modern electric transmission grid. The statistics speak for themselves: over the last ten years, New York has seen only one major new transmission line constructed – and it’s never been fully operational. In fact, in the last quarter of the 20th century, grid investments decreased by $3 billion, even as consumption surged. The result? Bottlenecks that have cost us $2.7 billion in higher energy prices over the past three years.

For several years, the Assembly has warned of potential problems with our state’s energy policies and has proposed several steps we should take to avoid events like this recent blackout. These reports can be found on the Energy Committee page of the Assembly’s Web site, www.assembly.state.ny.us. The Energy Committee is holding hearings to investigate exactly what caused the recent blackout and what we can do to prevent similar blackouts in the future. By starting so soon, we will insure that these critical reforms don’t get bogged down by bureaucratic sluggishness.

This is primarily a transmission issue, not a supply one. We have enough power to meet our needs. But some day, we won’t. So in addition to investing in the transmission system, we also need to invest in the next generation of electricity generation. We need to focus our efforts on clean, renewable energy sources, like wind, biomass, and fuel cells. If we start now, New York can become a leader in clean energy and use our expertise and ingenuity to create jobs.

The Assembly has already taken the lead on energy issues, passing a bill that would, among other things, improve the Article X power plant siting process by increasing community participation in the process, making it easier for applicants to build new plants while protecting residents and creating a new requirement for electric utility companies to guard customers against extreme variations in wholesale energy market prices (A.6248-A).

The Assembly’s New York State Transitional Energy Plan provides the long-term relief consumers and businesses need to pull our state back from the brink of yet another full-blown energy crisis like the one we’ve just seen. NYSTEP requires an integrated state agency energy conservation plan, and holds the Public Service Commission accountable to consumers, while saving businesses and consumers through programs like Power for Jobs and Emergency Rate Payer Protection Act.

New Yorkers have been asked repeatedly in recent years to show how tough they stand in the face of adversity, and this blackout was more proof that we always pull through. But now that the lights are back on, the hard work starts. If our state shows the same level of grace and dedication in confronting our problems after the blackout as it did during it, we’ll be more than able to build the kind of electric system we all need and deserve.