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Guestwords: Aging Energy Infrastructure

Wed, 03/17/2021 - 11:32

On the South Fork of Long Island, we all know about yearly brownouts during peak demand for power in the summer. Indeed, energy demand on the South Fork is growing at almost twice the rate of the rest of Long Island.

And now we have witnessed the power outages in Texas during freezing weather. With decades of neglect of their power grids, refusal to update the necessary infrastructure, and an ill-advised policy of not building connections with out-of-state grids, many lives were lost and the economic fallout is still unknown.

Locally, two major blackouts in 1965 and 1977 paralyzed New York City and exposed the vulnerability of the power grid. The full story can be read by Googling “Gaslights to Generators,” a September 2002 article on New York City’s energy history by Meryl Feiner.

Long Island is in a precarious situation in terms of meeting growing energy demands. Historically the Island has not produced sufficient energy, and thus it imports energy from elsewhere. But with solar and now wind energy sources, this is about to change. There are plans for 4,000 megawatts from wind farms off Long Island shores and 130 megawatts from the South Fork Wind farm, the project that is furthest along.

An interesting article in Newsday by Mark Harrington, updated on Feb. 24, discusses a NYSERDA (New York State Energy Research and Development Authority) report on the required updates to the grid and the infrastructure required to manage the massive new clean energy sources being planned. Harrington quotes Tom Falcone, chief executive of the Long Island Power Authority, saying, “As you put more and more offshore wind onto the grid, think of it as water pipe. At some point you reach the limit, so in order to have more offshore wind you have to upgrade the pipe.”

If we do nothing, the report indicates, there would be a need for “curtailments,” or intentional power outages.

The total cost of the required infrastructure updates would be about $1.5 billion. The upgrades include building a 345,000-volt circuit from LIPA’s newly built Shore Road substation in Glenwood Landing to the substation in Melville, an upgrade of the South Shore transmission grid (already in process), conversion of an existing 138,000-volt transmission line in Levittown to 345,000 volts, a new interconnection line between the LIPA and Con Edison systems, solar power upgrades of various substations, and improvements that are either already part of LIPA’s capital budget or have already begun, such as upgrading transformers and switching gear and substations to higher voltages.

A full list of LIPA’s transmission system and distribution system projects was presented on Feb. 24 at the LIPA trustee meeting. The slide deck can be found at lipower.org.

I asked some experts the following question: Would these grid upgrades also be required if the source of the required extra energy were solely fossil fuel generated, and to what extent are the costs a result of converting to clean energy?

“It is clear that we need to increase the capacity and resilience of the Long Island grid, so let’s get to work on the immediate upgrades and retrofits necessary within the current infrastructure,” said Mariah Dignan of Climate Jobs NY and the Climate Jobs NY Education Fund. “But as we begin to realize the clean energy economy, we will need bulk power transmission and distribution voltage upgrades over the next decade to handle offshore wind generation, increased electrification, and a better flow of renewables from upstate to downstate and vice versa. These investments will pay off for decades to come, and labor is fighting to ensure this transformation creates good union jobs and protects Long Island ratepayers.”

Gordian Raacke, the executive director of Renewable Energy Long Island, said that if the same amount of capacity would be interconnected at the same locations, similar grid upgrades and costs would be needed for fossil fuel versus renewable energy. But it is also fair to say that fossil fuel generation could be located in other parts of the state, while offshore wind resources would have to be interconnected along the shore.

In addition, he said, there are several misunderstandings that need to be cleared up. First, the potential transmission and distribution upgrades are not associated with the South Fork Wind farm but with all of the offshore wind farms that would be connected to the Long Island grid, as well as the interconnection of distributed solar and energy storage projects. These costs would not be borne exclusively by Long Island ratepayers but shared across New York State. These are potential projects identified in studies and proposed for study. LIPA does not believe that all of these “possible transmission projects” will be built. And last, most of the transmission projects would not be needed until 2025 through 2035.

Gordian has often reminded us, from the beginning, that the energy infrastructure must be renewed or replaced regardless of wind farms. This is a really costly undertaking, and it’s terrific that PSEG is proposing to make it a state­wide charge to ratepayers.


David Posnett, M.D., is emeritus professor of medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine in Manhattan. He lives in Springs.


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