Editorial: An imaginative idea from Town of Hempstead

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Hempstead Town Supervisor Laura Gillen proposed a plan last week to purchase natural gas for town businesses and residents from a new supplier at lower prices than offered by National Grid.

According to the plan, the town’s 174,000 customers could save 5 percent to 8 percent per month on their gas bills

The proposal is an imaginative way to keep costs down for residents and businesses – by using government to pool their buying power.

The plan, which was approved by the Hempstead Council Tuesday, was an outgrowth of the town’s Sustainability Leadership Team, a bipartisan panel that is exploring ways to reduce the town’s carbon footprint and increase green energy options, according to Newsday.

And it couldn’t have come at a better time.

National Grid announced last week that it has increased to $60 million the amount it is seeking in higher rates from Long Islanders next year.

The utility said the $8.39 average hike that residential customers would pay each month is needed for infrastructure improvements and a move toward cleaner energy.

An official at a public hearing said the 8.64 percent increase represented by the $60 million could rise another 1 percent to 2 percent if National Grid doesn’t receive approvals to construct a controversial gas pipeline it plans to have in service by the end of next year.

National Grid announced in May that it was halting the processing of applications for natural gas hookups for all levels of customers – residential, small business and large developments in Long Island and parts of New York City.

The utility’s announcement came after the state Department of Environmental Conservation rejected a water quality certification sought by National Grid needed for the utility to build a 24-mile subsea gas pipeline from the New Jersey shore to a terminus off the coast of the Rockaways.

The DEC said National Grid’s plan for building the $1 billion Williams Northeast Supply Enhancement pipeline would likely lead to water-quality violations by stirring up sediments and other contaminants, including mercury and copper. National Grid said they would revise their plan.

National Grid’s halt in processing applications is already hurting businesses large and small in the county.

A South Shore business owner who made a significant investment in a new restaurant said he is now unable to open because he cannot obtain natural gas service.

Kyle Strober, executive director of the Association for a Better Long Island, said the rejection of National Grid’s application is threatening future economic development projects, such as the proposed New York Islanders arena at Belmont Park and the Nassau Hub in Uniondale, according to the Long Island Business News.

National Grid contends the halt in accepting new applications is needed because its existing pipeline infrastructure is at capacity.

Others are not so sure.

Critics accuse the company of fabricating the shortage to lock the region into the $1 billion pipeline’s outsize supply for decades rather than turn to cleaner energy sources.

Richard Berkley, executive director of the Albany watchdog group Public Utility Law Project, said at a hearing in Hauppauge last week that the rate increase sought by National Grid would only make things worse for Long Island households already facing high costs, according to Newsday.

“National Grid’s gas rates are already among the highest in New York state,” Newsday reported him saying. “The truth is many National Grid customers are already struggling to pay their bills.”

The state has been strangely silent on National Grid’s claim that the utility faced a shortage of natural gas that required the moratorium.

A utility spokesman said at the hearing, which incredibly was only attended by one member of the public, that the state was conducting an independent review of what National Grid and Con Edison say is a regional gas supply shortage.

Oddly, National Grid media representative Domenick Graziani said in a statement last week that the utility had no objections to Hempstead’s plan.

“We fully support customers’ right to choose a natural gas supplier. It’s our obligation to secure gas supply at the best possible cost for them,” Graziani said.

Which begs the question of where the new supplier would get the gas. And if Hempstead could buy this gas for all the town’s residential and business customers at a lower price than they are now paying, why couldn’t the county or other towns such as North Hempstead do the same?

How much of a shortage is there if all these municipalities can buy natural gas at a lower price than offered by National Grid?

Given the financial cost already placed upon businesses and residents by the moratorium, we would expect the utilities to face major consequences if there wasn’t a shortage.

While we await the state’s answer to these questions, it is worth considering what other ways local governments could assist residences and businesses to reduce the high cost of living in Nassau County.

Could a similar plan be used to reduce the cost of electricity? Sanitation? Water?

And while we are at it, do we really need all those villages, towns and special districts?

This is a discussion worth having if residents and government are really serious about addressing the high cost of living in Nassau County.

In the meantime, we thank the Town of Hempstead for showing us at least one possibility.

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