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Another Voice: PSC offers only a weak opportunity to influence big change in power systems

By Larry Beahan

Have you heard of the “REV”? It is a revolution in the supply and regulation of New York’s energy. It is a dramatic and fundamental change and it is a dirty shame that most New Yorkers have never heard of it. REV stands for the NY Public Service Commission’s initiative, Reforming the Energy Vision.

When my mother was 5 in 1911, a man came to the front door. “Do you folks want electricity?” he asked. She said “no,” and shut the door. Grandma overheard and rushed after him to have gas lights replaced with Edison bulbs. Tesla and Westinghouse had built an electric power plant at Niagara Falls and formed a company that shipped power by wire all over the region.

That basic model for electric power is still with us. Investor-owned utilities produce electricity in large central plants with hydro, coal, natural gas and nuclear energy and transmit it to consumers over a complex grid. Doing an affordable and reliable job of it is an increasingly complex puzzle.

Power plants and their transmission systems are aging and energy demands are rising. Unusual weather creates demand peaks. Plants are prime terrorist targets, and fossil fuels have filled the air with pollution and the skies with global warming gasses.

In response, we have shifted away from central sources of power and moved to windmills, solar panels and geothermal installations that are widely distributed and close to consumers. These renewable energy sources don’t pollute or cause global warming. But they raise questions. Who will own them? How will they be paid for? How will they be integrated into a mutually supportive system?

Last April the Public Service Commission issued orders for the REV initiative. The commission staff went to work chiefly with utility company executives to answer these and many related questions. It has come up with a “straw proposal,” a complex technical document that needs an engineer with training in linguistics to understand.

On the insistence of environmental organizations, the PSC has agreed to hold six forums across the state where the REV will be explained and the rest of us will have two minutes before a microphone to make our contributions.

This scanty opportunity to be involved in a titanic change in the power supply to our civilization is a travesty. Tesla’s salesman offered my poor mother as much in 1911.

New Yorkers deserve to thoroughly understand what is being proposed and how it will affect our lives. We deserve an opportunity to have our own experts contribute to the design of a distributive power system for the 21st century.

The Public Service Commission hearings on the REV in Buffalo are at 2 p.m. and 6 p.m. Thursday in the Central Library in downtown Buffalo.

Larry Beahan is habitat chairman of the Sierra Club Niagara Group.