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a big turnoff
By ALISON GENDAR
DAILY NEWS STAFF WRITER
Monday, August 25th, 2003
Shut off our air conditioners, computers and DVD players?
Build a new power plant or transmission line in our neighborhood?
Not in my backyard, buddy.
It wasn't a lack of power that plunged the city and a large swath of the Northeast into darkness Aug. 14.
But getting sucked into the worst blackout in U.S. history showed how vulnerable New York is to energy fluctuations outside its borders.
Calls to boost the power supply have come from some officials, including Gov. Pataki - who blamed neighborhood groups, environmentalists and politicians for stalling construction of power plants and transmission lines in the city.
But opponents say plants pollute neighborhoods, and that it would be better to upgrade existing facilities while enticing consumers to conserve energy.
"No one wants to grab a tiger by the tail," said Jack Valentine, a spokesman for the New York Independent System Operator, the agency that manages the state's power grid.
That agency estimates New York City will need an additional 2,500 to 3,000 megawatts of electricity by 2008, but only about 950 megawatts are expected to come on line by then.
Taking on a headache
Following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the New York Power Authority won state approval for 11 temporary generators in and around the city - a move that community groups fought on the streets and in the courts.
The battle will heat up again when the power authority seeks to extend the temporary generators beyond their 2004 permit.
"Building a new power plant means a community could rise up against you. Building a transmission line means dozens of communities fighting you," Valentine said. "Do you want to take that on?"
New York City has three large power plants under construction: in Astoria and Long Island City, Queens, and in lower Manhattan.
Four other projects - one each in Sunset Park and Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and two more in Astoria - are on the drawing boards. Community opposition is strong, so it's anyone's guess how many will get built.
"What's frustrating is that the community response is 'No, never, not here' without even listening," said James Ryan, a principal of TransGas Energy, which is behind the proposed plan for the Williamsburg waterfront.
Other electric company executives were more blunt. "Everyone wants an air conditioner running 24-7, but no one wants to foot the bill," said one executive, who requested anonymity.
Christine Holowacz, who is part of a coalition opposing the Williamsburg project, said companies are always saying "Build, build, build! We need more power plants!" but noted a lack of energy was not the problem when the lights went out this month.
"We had a blackout because the grid failed," Holowacz said. "That's what needs to be upgraded and improved. We had plenty of juice."
"I've lived through three blackouts," said Assemblyman Joseph Lentol (D-Brooklyn), who also opposes the TransGas plant. "We have enough power. What we need to do is update the way electricity is delivered, not build more power plants."
Besides, community groups say, the biggest current obstacle may not be their complaints but money, as electric companies are having a harder time getting financing in a post-Enron business climate.
There's not much profit in transmission lines, so companies are reluctant to authorize new ones or upgrade old ones, energy experts said.
Only one major line - the Cross Sound Cable between Shoreham, L.I., and New Haven - has been built in New York in the past five years. And it took the blackout for Pataki to win an emergency order to power up for the first time the controversial 24-mile-long underwater cable. Connecticut long had blocked New York from using the line because of environmental complaints.
"We have the power - more than enough power - we just don't have the lines and flexibility to protect ourselves or move that power around," said James Lewis, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "The problem is creating consensus for what needs to be done."
KeySpan, an energy provider in Brooklyn, was able to build a consensus to open a new plant in Queens.
"You have to work with the community from the start," said David Manning, a KeySpan senior vice president. "If you don't, you will be on the defensive the whole time."
KeySpan won support from environmental groups to expand its Long Island City plant by agreeing to clean up the existing facility and dramatically reduce air pollution.
Its new addition is expected to start pumping juice into the city by Christmas.