By E.C. Barrett
The New York State Public Service Commission is reviewing a potential alternative to the West Dryden Road natural gas pipeline project submitted by NYSEG President Mark Lynch in the early days of February. The draft analysis up for review is the product of discussions between NYSEG, the PSC and members of the Tompkins County Energy and Economic Development Task Force, aimed at finding sustainable solutions to the low-pressure service areas in Lansing without increasing reliance on fossil fuels.
The $17.8 million Lansing/Freeville Reinforcement Gas Pipeline Project proposed by NYSEG in 2014, sparked heated debate among community members. On one side: Business leaders and developers who were denied new natural gas service in the impacted area due to NYSEG’s concern that providing service during the coldest days of winter, when peak demand can result in very low pressure, was unsafe.
Opponents of the pipeline argued against investing millions of dollars into fossil fuel infrastructure, increasing natural gas consumption with new service to new industries, which would increase greenhouse gas emissions, and miss the opportunity to invest in alternative energies.
Tompkins County officials gathered to announce NYSEG’s proposal at a press conference last week touted it as a groundbreaking collaboration in keeping with the EEDTF’s mission and method for finding creative solutions through dialogue between many perspectives and fields of knowledge.
Formed in 2015 and comprised of local environmental activists, scientists, business leaders and government officials, the 19-member EEDTF was charged with recommending short-term actions that could be initiated under local control to advance the county’s commitment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by the year 2050. The final EEDTF report released in June 2016 identified the West Dryden Road pipeline as a priority for reducing fossil fuel dependence and recommended working with NYSEG to find alternative solutions while simultaneously transitioning the county to energy efficient heat sources.
With the proposal before the PSC, that recommendation is one step closer to being a reality. In a letter to PSC Chair Audrey Zibelman, Lynch identified three priorities going forward: Meeting natural gas reliability needs for existing customers, increasing distribution capacity for those currently waiting on new service and increasing capacity to meet the demands of potential future customers. The draft analysis under review includes the construction of a small compressor station in the Lansing area that would provide reliable service in times of low pressure to existing customers. The compressor would not address the other two concerns and the current moratorium on new natural gas service would remain in place.
To tackle the priority of increasing capacity of service to include new and future customers, if approved, NYSEG plans to release a request for proposals by April 3, soliciting solutions to reduce current natural gas demand and transition to energy efficient electric heat systems, such as heat pumps.
“This is a very aggressive timeline outlined in Mark Lynch’s letter, it’s not a slam dunk,” Tompkins County Legislator Martha Robertson cautioned. “It’s important to note that the pipeline is not off the table if the PSC comes back and says they didn’t agree with the engineering study or they think it won’t work. It is the responsibility of the PSC and NYSEG to ensure that existing customers have the supply they need.
“So it is still to be decided and those things are under study. But our feeling is they wouldn’t have gone this far if they didn’t have confidence that this would work,” she added. “The experimental part of this is bending the curve with other users and trying to divert the investment that would have gone into the pipeline into other initiatives we expect can reduce demand and spur conversion to electricity.”
Deputy Commissioner of Planning and Sustainability Katherine Borgella, who supplied staff support for the EEDTF, said the proposal under review was a result of many people getting involved in the process and in finding a creative solution.
“There are a lot of forces at play right now around energy and New York is one of the leaders in the nation at looking at the whole system. The regulators at the PSC are pushing the utilities to change the way they’ve been doing things for a very long time. It’s not an easy lift for utilities, they are on the hook for safety and reliability,” explained Borgella. “But I also think our community members played a role. There were a lot of people who were protesting the pipeline and it made it very difficult for NYSEG to move ahead with the pipeline without the support of the landowners that they need to get the pipeline in place.”
In his letter to the PSC, Lynch stated NYSEG would not pursue eminent domain or other filings associated with the pipeline project during the compressor project and RFP process. The proposed deadline for responding to the RFP is May 19.