Op-Ed: LIPA Can Become a True Public Utility

The Long Island Power Authority will decide in March whether to continue having an outside private company provide electric service—so far it has used KeySpan, National Grid and now PSEG—or become a true public power utility and supply the electricity itself.

Eyed as a model for LIPA when it was established by the Long Island Power Act of 1985 was the Sacramento Municipal Utility District in California. SMUD is a well-run true public power utility, “the nation’s sixth-largest community-owned electric utility,” it notes. It serves 1.6 million customers, a customer base comparable to LIPA’s. And, importantly, it not only provides electric service itself but SMUD has locally elected trustees in charge.

It’s high time for a return to that original vision of LIPA—to provide electric service itself with elected trustees responsible for its management and the charting of Long Island’s electric future in harmony with the will of Long Islanders.

But after the Long Island Power Act was passed, having the people of Long Island vote for LIPA trustees was pushed aside by then Gov. Mario Cuomo and subsequently formally eliminated by his successor, George Pataki. Instead, a scheme was imposed of having the governor, the speaker of the State Assembly and leader of the State Senate—the oft-criticized “three men in a room”—appoint LIPA’s trustees. From Albany, they have had a huge hold over LIPA.

Citizens to Replace LILCO was the key grassroots organization that pushed for creation of LIPA—with strong support of Long Islanders and the island’s government officials.

“THE PROBLEM ISN’T JUST SHOREHAM. THE PROBLEM IS LILCO!” was the headline of a full-page advertisement that Citizens to Replace LILCO placed in many newspapers in the early 1980s. The “Shoreham” in the ad was the nuclear power plant that the now defunct Long Island Lighting Company, LILCO, was building, one of many nuclear power plants it sought to construct on Long Island.

A state-created Long Island Power Authority, said the ad, “would protect our safety. Here’s the plain fact: LILCO’s life depends on opening Shoreham…And this despite Shoreham’s safety problems. That’s why they’re [LILCO] spending a fortune on propaganda while we put up with terrible service. A Long Island Power Authority would close Shoreham…and supply dependable, safe power.” It continued: “If you’ve had it with incompetence and arrogance…if you’re fed up with one of the country’s worst utilities—join us now.”

The head of Citizens to Replace LILCO, Maurice Barbash, in explaining its strategy, said with creation of LIPA the aim would be to stop the Shoreham plant from going into operation and having “an elected non-partisan board” of LIPA that “would be, unlike LILCO, accountable to the people.”

A Newsday survey at the time found a solid majority of Long Islanders in favor of a public power utility here. The Long Island Power Act began: “The legislature hereby finds and declares that an economic emergency exists in the Long Island Lighting Company service area.” It cited “mismanagement and imprudent decisions by LILCO.” The governmental effort was bipartisan. Mr. Cuomo voiced his backing saying “I very much like the idea of public power” pointing to how it takes the profiteering out of supplying electricity. And he signed the act.

“This is a movement of the people by the people for the people,” said Leon Campo, a member of the steering committee of Citizens to Replace LILCO and chairman of the Suffolk-based Peoples’ Action Coalition.

And LILCO, a terribly run private utility, indeed in the 1930s and 1940s on the brink of bankruptcy, was replaced by a Long Island Power Authority.

But LIPA wasn’t allowed to become a public power utility like SMUD.

LIPA’s system of jobbing out electric service has faced enormous criticism—justifiably. Contractor KeySpan was taken over by National Grid based in London, England and National Grid was ousted as a LIPA contractor for its poor performance during Superstorm Sandy. It was replaced by Newark, New Jersey based PSEG which is now facing termination for its poor performance during Tropical Storm Isaias in August. Meanwhile, despite annual efforts by State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele, Jr. of Sag Harbor to have LIPA’s trustees elected, that hasn’t happened.

How LIPA can still become a public power utility like SMUD, providing electric service itself and with a board chosen by the votes of Long Islanders—and more on SMUD—next week.

Op-Ed: Take Power Lines Underground


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