Saturday, March 6, 2010

From the Journal News: PSC takes heat over tree cutting, Entergy spin off

The March 5th issue of The Journal News carried this article:

by Greg Clary - Journal News columnist

The Public Service Commission may do its work in Albany, but make no mistake — its decisions ripple through the Hudson Valley.

Take for instance two issues that are pretty contentious down here: Con Edison's tree-cutting and Indian Point's future.

On the first, the five members of the board — appointed by the governor to staggered six-year terms — decided in 2005 to let utility chain saws loose in backyards across the state.

The decision was made in the wake of the 2003 blackout that left the Northeast without power and started when two trees hit high-voltage power lines in Ohio.

Those regulation changes, designed to protect reliability, have left residents near local transmission lines crying foul because of what they call a "scorched Earth" cutting policy that doesn't consider anything other than delivering electricity.

"There are a lot of ways to do their role," said Mark Gilliland, a Greenburgh activist. "But they can't do it supremely. They have to work in concert with the communities they serve. They don't exist without the communities they serve."

Gilliland said there's no disagreement on wanting reliable electricity — he just doesn't want PSC to stand for Power Service Commission.

"Sure we want power and we want it secure, but there are limits," he said. "In the end, we are all facing the trickle down costs from the implementation of their regulations."

Residents are left with things like backyard flooding, topsoil erosion, loss of property value and aesthetics, not to mention tree debris, stumps and sawdust.

PSC spokesman Jim Denn said the commission got an update yesterday on the recent outages from the snowstorm and will have final reports from each utility within 60 days.

"We always look at an event like this as an opportunity to re-examine the current utility specifications to determine if they are still appropriate," Denn wrote in an e-mail to the Journal News. Earlier he wrote that "The Commission recognizes and appreciates the value of trees, but that value must weighed against the need to ensure electricity flows to homes and businesses.

He said the commission has not yet made any decisions on this.

The PSC also postponed a decision yesterday on the second matter close to the hearts of Hudson Valley residents — Indian Point.

Certainly proponents of the plant are happy the PSC didn't rule on whether Entergy, the nuclear plant's parent company, should be able to spin off three New York plants into an all-nuclear separate company that would include other company plants in the Northeast and Michigan.

Entergy just took a beating from the state of Vermont on its plant there, and the future of that site is cloudy at best.

At the eleventh hour Tuesday night, the company submitted changes to its plans for the spin-off company, to be called Enexus Energy Corp., and included more financial guarantees that may allay some PSC concerns about longterm viability.

At the heart of this matter is a challenge, led by state Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, that is best summarized by his office's submission to the PSC last month:

"Entergy seeks to spin off several aging nuclear power plants to a new and debt-laded corporation whose only assets would be the plants themselves. Not only would this new corporation be heavily indebted, it would be unique; no other corporation is exclusively built around aging nuclear reactors that operate in a 'merchant' (i.e., non-utility) power system."

The question becomes whether the PSC going forward might earn the nickname "Political Service Commission," as Cuomo is challenging Indian Point's application to extend its operating license an extra 20 years even as he weighs a decision to run for New York's governorship — with the attendant right to appoint new PSC members.

Things get curiouser and curiouser.

Stay tuned — the PSC could rule on the Entergy question as early as March 25.

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