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Getting a handle on our energy issues

Thursday, May 15, 2014 - Updated: 7:57 AM

The list of energy-related challenges in New York state is long, complicated and expensive.

The most immediate and dramatic concerns center on the transportation of crude oil in rail cars that might not hold in the case of a derailment and the various proposals to transport that oil, whether by pipeline or barge.

Following a winter of record-challenging cold and its accompanying record-challenging utility bills, customers are bracing for more of the same with a new pricing scheme that is supposed to encourage power production but seems more likely to encourage even higher utility bills.

And don't forget Indian Point. Not that long ago, the nuclear plants were the signature issue when it came to the present and future of regional power. The state still wants to close them by opposing an extension of the federal license they would need to keep on operating beyond the original expiration date. The company that owns the nuclear plants and many industrial supporters feel that they have demonstrated their safety and reliability. Besides, they ask, where will the region and especially New York City get the power it needs now and in the immediate future if the Indian Point plants close?

It's a good question and it is getting an intriguing answer in the form of a proposal now going before the state Public Service Commission that envisions a much more decentralized future for the production of power. In place of the big nuclear plants at Indian Point or the resurrection of the aging Danskammer plant, once worth more as scrap but now a potential profit center with more lucrative rates arriving, the PSC is looking at a visionary decentralized plan that would get power from many sources.

As a story Monday in Blooomberg Business-week explained, the state is "pushing its utility industry to shift away from a century-old business model into a system that can accommodate more power from solar and wind."

This would happen by turning the state's electric utilities "into a new kind of entity that would buy electricity from hundreds or thousands of small generators and set prices for that electricity and for the costs of running the power grid," The New York Times reported.

Details are sketchy and numbers vague at this point. But that's where good ideas start, with concepts that stand a chance of changing the dynamic that has New York on the road to ever-higher bills for a system vulnerable to the massive storms that have become part of our planning and that will impose even higher costs in the future.

Instead of smokestacks or solar farms or turbine clusters, it envisions a decentralized grid producing power in as many ways as it is possible to produce it, then having utilities direct the product and do the accounting.

The idea is known as Utility 2.0 and the PSC needs to encourage work on the details to make this or Utility 2.1 or 2.2 a reality, because as every utility customer learned from both the interruptions from Sandy and her predecessors and the arrival of the bills this spring, Utility 1.0 is no longer sustainable.

-- The Times Herald-Record of Middletown

     

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