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Utility

Pixabay photo

By Brian Monahan

National Grid’s pending joint proposal before the state’s Public Service Commission could see monthly rates paid by the average residential customer increased by $28.52 for Long Island and $30.95 for New York City starting June 1 if approved. 

The lengthy process of proposing a rate increase, called a “rate case,” is organized akin to a court case, with administrative judges assigned to rule over the proceedings. The entire process, as well as the subsequent public feedback and negotiations with the state, can take over a year. The most recent joint proposal came after public comment on two separate proposals was heard for the New York City and Long Island region last year.

“National Grid is proud to play a vital role in achieving New York’s energy goals. The joint proposal submitted today includes critical improvements in infrastructure maintenance and upgrades that will enable us to continue providing reliable, affordable service while advancing the state’s energy priorities,” said Phil DeCicco, New York general counsel for National Grid April 9. “We are proud of the agreement we have reached with the Department of Public Service staff and other parties and look forward to receiving additional feedback from our stakeholders in the downstate region during the upcoming public review process.”

The current proposal has elicited varying reactions across the region, especially based on National Grid’s commitment to “transition to cleaner energy sources,” and investing in its existing gas mains to reduce emissions.

“It is always troubling to see rate increases but especially at a time when our families are having an issue putting food on their tables due to the faltering economy,” said state Sen. Mario Mattera (R-St. James), a member of the Energy and Telecommunications Committee. “The fact that these increases are being pushed in an effort to comply with the rushed elimination of fuel choice in New York State is disturbing to me.”

He added, “I have repeatedly stated that these haphazard and ill-conceived efforts will cost New Yorkers trillions, and we are already seeing the impact of putting the cart before the horse.”

Rate hikes are typically approved, albeit with some modifications. 

Photo by Andrew Martin from Pixabay

By Brian Monahan

At the Three Village Civic Association meeting on April 1, residents listened to a presentation regarding the legislative effort in Albany to take actionable steps at implementing the recommendation of the report of the Legislative Commission on the Future of the Long Island Power Authority to make LIPA a “true publicly owned” power authority. This would allow LIPA to run its own electric grid with considerable savings, according to the report.

Yet, the plan’s prospects appear dim in the backdrop of Albany as a late state budget muddies the waters of progress. The commission’s co-chair, Assemblyman Fred Thiele (D-Sag Harbor), has legislation in the Assembly, but no such bill exists in the Senate. 

Thiele was not available for comment prior to press time. 

“This is something that will be discussed outside and after the budget during the remainder of the legislative session,” said the deputy communications director for state Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D) when asked if the majority leader would support putting forward a corresponding bill in the Senate. 

PSEG Long Island has reportedly been lobbying heavily in favor of retaining the current “service provider” model, which is uncommon in the United States. Additionally, PSEGLI points to metrics such as reliability, customer satisfaction, “most improved large utility since taking over the grid 10 years ago” and having the “lowest Department of Public Service complaint rate in New York state” as reasons the current model should stay. 

“The public-private partnership has worked for our customers on Long Island and in the Rockaways,” said Katy Tatzel, director of communications for PSEGLI. “Continuous improvement is one of PSEG Long Island’s core tenants. We have made significant improvement to the customer communications system and hardening of the system both before and after [Tropical Storm] Isaias [in 2020] and will continue to make improvements in the future.”

If LIPA were to be a fully public utility, it would have access to tax-exempt bonds and government grants, which it is argued would help lower prices paid by ratepayers. The utility does not have current access to these potential benefits. 

The financial analysis of the LIPA commission identifies between $48 million and $78 million in annual cost savings through “LIPA directly managing the operation of its electric system,” primarily by eliminating the PSEGLI management fee.

Opponents to this municipalization plan include the Long Island Association and the Empire Center. “The Long Island Association opposes a fully-municipal electric utility for our region as recommended by the Legislative Commission on the Future of LIPA, as it would adversely impact ratepayers and Long Island’s energy future,” LIA President & CEO Matt Cohen said in a statement. 

The Empire Center, a free-market-oriented think tank in Albany, notes that the unique situation of a public-private utility makes it an easy target when service goes awry but believes the commission “failed” to make its case for municipalization.

Where does this web lead ratepayers? “I’ve heard a number of different perspectives, but the one that always resonates is how unhappy people are with the current situation,” said Herb Mones of Stony Brook, expressing how few people have time to understand the present system.

Others see municipalization, which would reconfigure the governing body of LIPA, as a key way to getting local political bodies and organized labor represented on LIPA’s board. 

Questions of which model of governance may be adopted or any other plans for the future of municipalization are secondary to whether the legislation will pass. In the interim, ratepayers remain united in seeking the best service for the best rates possible, whatever arrangement this means. 

Photo courtesy PSEG Long Island

PSEG Long Island is working toward improving the reliability of the energy grid in Fort Salonga. The storm hardening work on this distribution circuit is part of many system improvements included in the “Power On” program.

“We are working hard to reduce the number of outages that occur during severe weather by strengthening the electric lines that directly power homes and businesses,” said Peggy Keane, PSEG Long Island’s vice president of construction and operations services. “This Power On infrastructure improvement project in Fort Salonga is part of PSEG Long Island’s ongoing, multiyear effort to continue to improve electric reliability for customers.”

The work began at the end of October and will last for approximately two months. PSEG Long Island’s licensed and approved contractors will work along distribution lines in Fort Salonga. To ensure traffic moves safely, PSEG Long Island will provide cones, flaggers and signage at the worksites, as needed. Local officials will also be notified in advance regarding any potential traffic concerns.

The storm-hardening improvements include:

Stronger poles: PSEG Long Island will replace some existing utility poles with stronger, more durable poles that are capable of withstanding winds up to 135 mph. The new poles will be approximately the same height as the existing poles, have a stronger base and will be placed no more than 5 feet from the current pole locations. PSEG Long Island will actively coordinate the removal of old poles with other utilities and municipalities.

Narrow profiles: To help wires deflect falling limbs instead of catching them, PSEG Long Island will be installing shorter cross arms atop some poles.

Stronger wire: Current wire will be replaced with more resilient and durable wire.

Upgrading: PSEG Long Island will upgrade or replace worn equipment as necessary.

Crews will be working on the following streets in Fort Salonga

• Fresh Pond Road between Fort Salonga Road and Claymore Road

• Breeze Hill Road between Fresh Pond Road and the intersection at Brookfield Road and Woodmere Drive

• Woodmere Drive between Brookfield Road and Fort Salonga Road 

PSEG Long Island prepares year round for extreme weather to maintain reliable service for its 1.2 million customers. Since 2014, the company has made investments in strengthening the electric infrastructure. Using funding from both FEMA and LIPA, PSEG Long Island has completed storm hardening and reliability work on more than 1,000 miles of distribution mainline circuits.

Power On, a program initiated in the spring of 2020, continues the work now that the FEMA program has concluded. Since the program’s launch, over 318 miles of the most vulnerable distribution mainline and branch line circuits on Long Island and in the Rockaways have been storm hardened with stronger poles, thicker wire and other modern equipment.

According to PSEG Long Island, these investments have strengthened the system so that fewer customers experience outages and, when they do occur, the duration is shorter, especially during extreme weather events. 

From the third quarter of 2022 through the third quarter of 2023, the sections of circuits that are storm hardened saw a 44% reduction in damage leading to outages compared to the rest of the distribution system.

For more project details, visit www.psegliny.com/inthecommunity/currentinitiatives/stormhardeningprojects.

Police and PSEGLI have been trying to catch scammers pretending to be from the utility company for several years, but the con is still on the rise. Stock photo

Phone scammers have used a number of tactics to get unassuming people to hand over their money, but one con has police and a Long Island utility company especially concerned.

Some scammers have been claiming they are employees of a utility company like PSEG Long Island, and then tell a person their bill is in arrears. They threaten to turn off heat or electricity if they do not receive hundreds or even thousands of dollars, often in the form of a gift card instead of the normal check or direct deposit.

“The elderly might not say anything because they may be embarrassed.”

— Stuart Cameron

Such is what happened to Setauket resident Candy Maeder, who said she was called March 5 by a person claiming to be from the utility company. The man on the phone said Maeder was late on her bills and her service would be shut off in a matter of hours if she didn’t give them hundreds of dollars in cash. She said they would not even take a debit card over the phone.

“I fought with them back and forth,” the Setauket resident said. “At first, I really believed it was them.”

After hanging up the phone, and after talking with her boyfriend and also her electrician, she came to the conclusion it had been a scam. 

That day, she called PSEGLI and the police, but Maeder’s experience is all too common in the modern day — almost textbook with what others have experienced. Suffolk County police has records of the number of reports of phone scams received over the past several years. Records show the frequency of the PSEGLI scam has increased. In 2018, there were 56 reported cases of the scam throughout Suffolk. In 2019, police received 76 reports of scammers claiming they were PSEGLI, where people did not give them money. An additional 55 actually resulted in the scammers stealing money from victims for a total of 131. In January and February of this year, police have received reports of 30 scams so far.

Suffolk County Police Chief Stuart Cameron said scammers are always coming up with novel frauds, but the PSEGLI scam has been on the rise. Like many scams, it particularly targets the most vulnerable residents, such as the elderly, who particularly can’t afford to be out several thousand dollars as some scammers demand.

“The elderly might not say anything because they may be embarrassed,” he said. “Scammers play on that type of fear and embarrassment to exploit money from those residents who are probably in the worst position to lose money like this.” 

New Jersey-based PSEG has been tracking this scam even before taking over the electric infrastructure portion of LIPA’s business from National Grid in 2014. Robert Vessichelli, the senior security investigator for PSEGLI, said the actual number of people falling for the scam has decreased over the years. In 2019 the utility company received notice of 6,574 scams for the whole of Long Island, where 305 of those fell victim to the scammers. The con artists often ask for as little as a few hundred dollars and up to several thousand. 

“The best way to combat these scams is by educating the public,” Vessichelli said. “When I learn people haven’t heard of the scam, it kind of concerns us.”

Tracking these individuals is difficult, even when scammers are calling locally. While the police chief said they have made some arrests, the suspects often do a process to their phone numbers called “spoofing,” making their caller ID on answering machines appear as a completely separate number, even making it out to look like it was coming from PSEGLI or even police.

The Long Island utility company has been participating in a national campaign to promote awareness of phone scams. Utilities United Against Scams, a U.S. and Canadian consortium of utility companies, ran the campaign during National Consumer Protection Week March 1-7 to promote scam awareness. Vessichelli said the consortium uses its influence to block the numbers of callers they confirm are from scammers, but of course the perpetrators will simply move on to use a different phone number. Sometimes, these calls come from people outside the U.S. 

The scam comes in multiple forms. While often it’s a person on the phone proclaiming a bill is in arrears, con artists also conduct phishing schemes by telling people they are owed money from overpayment and ask for bank account information. They may also call saying they need a deposit for a new meter, though PSEGLI does not charge a deposit for such a thing.

“At first, I really believed it was them.”

— Candy Maeder

One of the more frightening tactics is when charlatans show up in person at people’s houses claiming they are utility employees. When such people come to the door, Vessichelli said its best to call PSEGLI to confirm those are legitimate employees. The security expert suggested if they show ID, ask to take a picture for you to send to the utility to confirm identities.

Warning signs are often readily apparent. If a resident receives a cold call without any prior email or snail mail notifications, that’s usually a bad sign. Another sure sign is if they ask for any nontraditional form of payment, such as asking you to buy gift cards which the person then asks for those to be scratched off, or a payment of cash by drop off or in person. 

These are points often seen across all sorts of scams, so police’s general advice is to not relay any kind of personal information, such as your name or the name of family members or where you live. Scammers often take private information off social media such as Facebook, so if one starts hearing familiar names, don’t take it as a sign they are who they say they are. 

PSEGLI workers are required to wear photo IDs, so in meeting one of these scammers in person, a surefire sign is if they cannot produce such an identification. 

Cameron said if one suspects a caller might be a scam, then one should hang up, get the number where called from and phone PSEGLI at 800-490-0025 or the police at 631-852-2677. For more information, visit www.psegliny.com/scam and www.utilitiesunited.org.

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Port Jefferson is fighting to keep property tax revenue flowing from the power plant and to prevent restrictions from being lifted on peaker unit output. File photo by Lee Lutz

The Port Jefferson school district has climbed aboard a lawsuit against the Long Island Power Authority that challenges the utility’s efforts to reduce its property taxes at North Shore power plants.

LIPA has been working for the last several years to significantly reduce taxes at the aging Port Jefferson and Northport plants, saying the facilities are grossly over-assessed and force the utility to pay more in property taxes than it should. But the school board voted on Nov. 24 to join a lawsuit filed by the Town of Huntington and the Northport-East Northport school district that disputes LIPA’s legal right to file its tax challenges, claiming they are a breach of contract.

That argument stems from a 1997 letter from former LIPA Chairman Richard Kessel, in which Kessel said the utility would not file property tax challenges in the future “on any of their respective properties at any time in the future unless a municipality abusively increases its assessment rate.”

The “respective properties” referenced include the Port Jefferson and Northport power plants, which are owned and operated by energy company National Grid. That company sells the energy it produces to the Long Island utility.

In Port Jefferson, the power plant’s property taxes provide much support to the school district, accounting for almost half of its budget, making the potential loss of that revenue a serious issue for the district.

The Port Jefferson Village government is in a similar position, funding about one-third of its budget with power plant taxes. Smaller stakeholders include the Port Jefferson fire and library districts and the Town of Brookhaven.

In an announcement posted on its website last week, the Port Jefferson school district said, “Our decision to join this lawsuit is a necessary step to protect the resources of our school district and the financial stability of our taxpayers.”

Before the Port Jefferson school district joined the lawsuit, LIPA had filed a motion to dismiss it, but New York State’s highest court denied that motion earlier this year and allowed the case to move forward.

At that time, a LIPA spokesperson said the utility does not comment on ongoing litigation.

After the utility’s motion to dismiss was denied — representing a small victory for those fighting LIPA’s tax challenges — Port Jefferson Village filed a separate lawsuit in September that alleges the same breach of contract as the schools’ lawsuit. Village Attorney Brian Egan requested that court action on LIPA’s tax challenges, which are still pending in the court system, be delayed until the new lawsuits are resolved.

If the plaintiffs win their arguments, the pending tax challenges would be thrown out.

According to Egan, however, the lawsuits are now facing a new motion to dismiss, this time from National Grid.

Stock photo

Long Island utility PSEG said residents across Nassau and Suffolk counties have been receiving suspicious phone calls threatening to cut their service if they don’t immediately pay bills that don’t exist.

An alert from PSEG Long Island said both residential and business customers have been receiving calls from tricksters claiming to be employees of the utility company and warning that their electric service would soon be cut if payments are not made to them the same day. Similar scams have been reported across the country, with PSEG being one of the latest to see customers fall victim to them, the utility said in a statement.

It was described as an “old scam with a new twist,” in which scammers spoof PSEG Long Island’s interactive voice response system prompt menu so that when customers call back, they are presented with an interaction that is similar to one they would receive if they called PSEG Long Island’s real customer service line.

“The scammers tell customers that, in order to avoid being shut off, they must immediately pay their bill with a prepaid card that can be purchased at many pharmacies and retail stores,” the utility said in a statement.

Dan Eichhorn, vice president of customer services for PSEG Long Island, said there were striking similarities in each of the scams.

“Scammers ask the customer to give them the number on the back of the pre-paid card and take the money from the card — usually within a matter of minutes,” he said in a statement. “This scam has affected companies across the country. We urge our customers to always use caution when making payments.”

The utility reassured that it would never force a customer to give them the number of a prepaid card, especially with such urgency. In a statement, PSEG Long Island said that suspicious residents should hang up the phone if they receive such a call and call back directly to test the validity of that call.

“When PSEG Long Island makes an outbound phone call to customers, customer-specific information is shared with the customer,” PSEG Long Island said in a statement. “That information includes the account name, address, number and current balance. If customers do not receive this correct information, they likely are not speaking with a PSEG Long Island representative.”

The number on the back of PSEG Long Island customer bills is 1-800-490-0025.

PSEG Long Island said the utility was working with local and national law enforcement to investigate the matter further and is reaching out to its contacts at local community service agencies, asking them to spread the word to their clients.

Projects will launch in Huntington Town next week

File photo by Arlene Gross

Crews from PSEG Long Island are expected to launch an eight-month-long project in Huntington Town on Monday in an effort to strengthen the electric grid across Long Island.

Work on the project will follow a three-mile route along an electric line circuit in Huntington, Huntington Station and Cold Spring Harbor, according to a PSEG Long Island statement. The project will be funded through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), a federal program that coordinates responses to national disasters.

The more than $729 million for the project were secured for the Long Island Power Authority through an agreement last year between Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) and FEMA through FEMA’s Hazard Mitigation Assistant Program.

The project will replace existing wire with more weather-resistant wire, install new and durable poles in several locations, and install or replace switching equipment to help reduce the number of customers affected by power outages.

“We are committed to making our transmission and distribution system more resilient, able to better withstand extreme weather events,” David Daly, PSEG Long Island’s president and chief operating officer said in a press release. “Superstorm Sandy has had a lasting impact on our customers, and the recovery and healing is still ongoing.”

The project is expected to implement reinforcements that will help the system in future storms. After Hurricane Sandy, people across Long Island were without power for upward of 10 days. Both Hurricane Sandy and the winter storm that followed in 2013 severely impacted the transmission and distribution system operations, a representative of PSEG Long Island said.

Work on the system will start on or about April 6, Monday through Friday between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. While there is the potential for some road closures along the route, PSEG has not said when and where they will be.

Trees that grow near power lines will be trimmed, as they pose a safety risk and increase the chance of power outages. New poles will also be approximately the same height as existing poles but will have a stronger base and be situated a few feet from the current pole.

“After Sandy, we know firsthand how important it is to invest in the infrastructure to fortify it to withstand extreme conditions,” Jon Kaiman, special advisor to Cuomo for storm recovery and chairman of the Nassau Interim Finance Authority said in a press release.

To see a complete list of the project route visit https://www.psegliny.com.