February 21, 2014

Editorial: Energy conservation, alternatives needed

Plattsburgh’s Municipal Lighting Department has warned its customers that the extreme cold of the past couple of months means that higher bills are on the way.

It is a timely and useful reminder that, a few decades ago, probably would not have been issued. The reason? Electricity rates were so low in Plattsburgh for the first few decades of MLD’s existence that nobody cared how much electricity was used.

That was a source of pride in Plattsburgh but also a reason for wasting precious energy, which, back in the 1960s and ‘70s, was so cheap that conservation was seldom a consideration.

Plattsburgh wasn’t alone in this enviable but dangerous situation. Rouses Point, Tupper Lake and Lake Placid also had, and still have, municipal electricity departments, which provide power to businesses and households far more inexpensively than the commercial companies, such as New York State Electric & Gas Corp. or National Grid.

Municipals could outprice the public companies because of long-term contracts with the Power Authority of the State of New York, the provider of inexpensive hydropower from the St. Lawrence Seaway and Niagara power projects. That advantage has been diluted, but it still exists to some extent.

Years ago, the municipals had unlimited access to this power, which cost a fraction of the electricity produced from burning coal or other means.

The state came to realize, however, that New York City, for example — the state’s biggest user of electricity — was paying many times the cost of electricity that some upstaters were paying. That inequity had to be addressed, although advocates of upstate argued that cheap power was one of the few areas in which citizens and developers could claim a competitive edge on the Big Apple.

And advocates of energy conservation had been complaining for years that municipal power rates were so cheap that they thwarted efforts to conserve.

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