Op-Ed: Time for LIPA to Become Full Public Utility

The G in PSEG could stand for Goofy.

PSEG this month faces loss of the 12-year contract it got in 2013 to operate Long Island’s electrical grid for the Long Island Power Authority. This stems from its massive failures during Tropical Storm Isaias in August 2020 when more than 500,000 of LIPA’s 1.1 million customers lost power, many for days, and communications with PSEG to report outages and find out what was happening were impossible.

As Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who was central in getting PSEG to replace National Grid as LIPA’s private contractor—after National Grid’s major failures in Superstorm Sandy—said of PSEG’s Isaias performance: “Utility companies are beholden to ratepayers, and when that service is inadequate—or as in this case, a complete failure—those utilities need to be held accountable.”

LIPA is to make a decision later this month about going back to the original vision of LIPA when it was created by the state in 1986: being a full public utility operating Long Island’s electric grid itself and not jobbing that out to a private company. LIPA is also considering an alternative: strengthened provisions in its contract with PSEG.

It should decide to be a full public utility.

And, also, the state should restore another part of the original vision for LIPA—having LIPA’s trustees elected. This would enable the Long Island public to control their public utility. (Now LIPA trustees are appointed, five by the governor, and two each by the State Assembly speaker and State Senate president.)

A big problem for Newark, New Jersey-based PSEG is its historic and current goofiness.

For example, before Isaias struck, LIPA was having an extremely tough time getting through to PSEG-LI executives assigned to Long Island because they were in Puerto Rico as they sought a contract to operate Puerto Rico’s electric grid. “If you wanted to contact the [PSEG] management team you had to call them in San Juan,” LIPA Chief Executive Tom Falcone told Newsday. PSEG didn’t get the Puerto Rican contract after all.

A huge historic PSEG goofiness story involves Richard Eckert, then PSEG’s vice president for engineering and construction, and a brainstorm he had in 1969 while taking a shower.

Opposition was increasing to building nuclear power plants in populated areas and there was the problem concerning the mammoth amounts of water they need as coolant—a million gallons a minute for a standard nuclear power plant. So, what came to Mr. Eckert was the notion of putting nuclear power plants in the ocean. And that became PSEG’s scheme—a string of nuclear power plants in the Atlantic starting off of southern New Jersey running north to 20 miles off Long Island.

This became one of my early articles on nuclear power and my first about PSEG.

I was driving along Dune Road near Hot Dog Beach in the Hamptons and noticed that a big meteorological station had suddenly popped up. On the chain link fence surrounding it was a sign with the name of Brookhaven National Laboratory. I called BNL and was told it had set up the station because a company from New Jersey, PSEG, planned to site nuclear power plants in the Atlantic. A BNL spokesperson said the laboratory had borrowed a 75-foot LST from the U.S. Navy and was also using aircraft and a trawler. Clouds of white smoke were being sent up to determine likely dispersal patterns of radioactivity from the floating PSEG nuclear power plants.  I was told the clouds, representing radioactivity, usually floated to Long Island because of prevailing winds being from the southwest.

PSEG convinced Westinghouse to manufacture the floating nuclear power plants. In 1970 Westinghouse set up Offshore Power Systems to construct them at a massive facility built on Blount Island off Jacksonville, Florida. The plants were to be towed up the Atlantic into position. In a book I wrote, Cover Up: What You Are Not Supposed to Know About Nuclear Power, I showed an Offshore Power Systems sales brochure and featured three pages on the project. Offshore Power Systems went bust in 1984, after losing $180 million (in 1970s dollars) on the failed venture. PSEG itself, meanwhile, according to NJ Advance Media, “sunk millions into the project and [its] customers would spend the next 20 years paying off a large share of those costs.”

More next week on the Long Island electricity decision ahead.





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