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Port Jefferson Power Station

State Sen. Ken LaValle (R-Port Jefferson). File photo

New York state Sen. Ken LaValle (R-Port Jefferson) wants to make it more difficult for LIPA to increase rates for its customers.

LaValle and Assemblyman Fred Thiele (I-Sag Harbor) introduced the Long Island Power Authority Rate Reform Act in January, a bill drafted to require the not-for-profit public utility’s board of trustees to “protect the economic interests of its ratepayers and the service area,” in addition to the interests of the utility company when considering a rate increase proposal, according to a joint press release from the lawmakers. The bill would also prevent LIPA from increasing rates to offset revenue losses associated with energy conservation efforts, like the installation of energy-efficient appliances and lightbulbs. If passed, it would be mandated the board hold public hearings within each county overseen by LIPA prior to finalizing rate plans.

Currently, LIPA’s board is required to consider three criteria when a rate increase is proposed by the State Department of Public Service: sound fiscal operating practices, existing contractual obligations and safe and adequate service, according to the press release.

“While we have been working to keep Long Island affordable by implementing measures like the 2 percent property tax cap, LIPA approved the largest rate increase in its history,” LaValle said in a statement, citing a three-year rate increase approved by the board in 2015. “This measure will enable more community input by mandating a public hearing when considering rate changes. In addition, this legislation would provide the trustees with the tools necessary to reject rate increases that would cause additional financial burdens on Long Islanders.”

Brookhaven Town Supervisor Ed Romaine (R) and Port Jefferson Village Mayor Margot Garant each voiced support for LaValle’s bill.

“The record amount of investment in reliability, customer service and clean energy all come at a time when electric rates have remained roughly flat for decade,” LIPA Trustee Tom McAteer said in a statement through spokesman Sid Nathan. “Customer satisfaction is significantly higher and customers see PSEG Long Island crews tree-trimming and storm-hardening the electric grid throughout the year. Those are the facts. Not opinion. The Reform Act is working for our customers.”

The LIPA Reform Act was enacted in 2013 to revamp the utility’s operations, including empowering the board to decide on proposed rate increases. PSEG Long Island — which operates LIPA’s distribution systems — Media Relations Specialist Elizabeth Flagler said in a statement the company is reviewing the legislation and will be monitoring its status.

The proposed legislation comes as municipalities continue settlement discussions pertaining to lawsuits filed by Port Jeff Village and Port Jefferson School District — both in LaValle’s home district — in addition to the Town of Huntington and Northport-East Northport School District against LIPA to prevent the utility’s challenges to property value assessments at the Port Jeff and Northport plants. The result of the lawsuits could have a dramatic impact on Port Jeff Village and its school district, as both entities receive substantial property tax revenue as a host community of a LIPA power plant.

The Port Jeff plant is currently used about 11 percent of the time, during periods of peak energy generation demand, an argument LIPA has used against the village’s public pleas to repower its plant and give LIPA more bang for its tax-assessment buck. A 2017 LIPA study predicted by 2030 the Port Jeff plant might only be needed about 6 percent of the year, thanks in part to the emergence energy efficient household appliances. In August 2016 New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) mandated that 50 percent of the state’s electricity come from renewable energy, such as wind and solar power, by 2030.

Bruce Blower, a spokesman for LaValle, did not respond to an email asking if the proposed legislation was drafted with the lawsuits in mind, or if a settlement was imminent. Both the senate and assembly versions of the bill are in committee and would require passage by both houses and a signature from Cuomo prior to becoming law.

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Extreme low temperatures caused enough demand to require use of the Port Jefferson Power Station. File photo by Erika Karp

In Port Jefferson, the stacks are impossible to miss. They stick up in the sky, visible from Setauket and Port Jefferson Station when not in use. However, when electricity demand spikes, the billowing, white steam coming from the red-and-white, candy-striped stacks of the Port Jefferson Power Station is a sight to behold.

With the emergence of energy-efficient appliances and a general societal shift toward being “green conscious,” the power station is only activated in times of peak electricity demand these days, like when temperatures and wind chills start flirting with zero. From late December into early January, the New York office of the National Weather Service reported that for 13 straight days, ending Jan. 9, the maximum temperature at Long Island MacArthur Airport in Islip failed to exceed 32 F. It was the second longest period of below-freezing temperatures reported at the airport since 1963.

As a result of an Island-wide rush to crank up thermostats everyday from Dec. 27 through Jan. 10, the steam-powered electrical generation station was ready to go, serving as an addendum to the Island’s regularly used energy production. In 2017, the Port Jeff plant was operated for 1,698 hours through November, with an additional 260 hours of run time needed in December, according to Sid Nathan, director of public information for the Long Island Power Authority, which oversees operation of the station.

When running, its two steam units produce the white clouds or water vapor, which is a byproduct of burning oil or gas. As the vapor exits the stacks, contact with colder air causes condensation of the water vapor, producing the cloudlike white color. The two steam units ran for 1,958 hours in 2017, the equivalent of running for 41 days, or 11 percent of the year, Nathan said. The power station has the ability to generate about 400 megawatts of power.

The historic stretch of cold temperatures definitely generated an unusually high energy demand at the station, according to Nathan.

“Generally, on a typical 35 degree day, PSEG Long Island would not expect to dispatch the Port Jefferson plant,” he said.

For those concerned about the white steam yielded by the energy generation process, Nathan said the station is not producing more or different steam than normal and that the byproduct is more visible at extremely low ambient temperatures.

“There is no cause for concern,” Nathan said.

State Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket) said the white smoke is mostly steam that could potentially contain particulates other than steam, and he reiterated residents shouldn’t be overly concerned. Although Englebright did say it would be “prudent to try to separate yourself from the atmospherics of the plant.”

As a North Shore resident and chair of the Assembly Committee on Environmental Conservation, Englebright said he was thankful the plant was ready to roll when needed most.

“Yes, during most of the year they are not in use,” Englebright said, of the stacks. “But when we really need it, it’s there. And we really needed it just in this cold spell and it went into high operation. Thank God it was there.”

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