National Grid attempted to block a company promoting alternative fuel sources to gas from receiving party status during deliberations on its pipeline project in upstate New York. In filings with the New York Public Service Commission (PSC) for its proposed E37 project – a 7-mile gas pipeline extension south of Albany – the utility objected to the inclusion of a company that installs heat pumps.

In a request earlier in the year for party status on the E37 docket, John Ciovacco, Board Member of the NY Geothermal Energy Organization and President of Aztech Geothermal, a company that maintains and services 450 heat pump systems, explained that he has been a party in previous utility rate cases and is currently a party in the ConEd rate case. “I am very active in the discussions about non-pipeline alternatives,” Ciovacco wrote to the PSC.  

National Grid, however, responded by asking the commission to refuse Ciovacco’s party status request. “[Ciovacco] failed to demonstrate,” the utility wrote “[that his] participation as a party would contribute to the development of the record or otherwise be fair and in the public interest.”

The PSC has yet to make a formal ruling on National Grid’s objection, but Ciovacco’s public comment on the E37 docket makes clear that alternatives to gas pipelines in upstate New York are within reach. “We have hundreds of successful projects in the area, with the last 150 systems carefully monitored, and performance data logged for verification… If the E37 pipeline project is not approved, we must all work to insure alternatives are reliable and affordable,” he wrote. “The good news is, we have a strong start already.”

A 2018 analysis by the Rocky Mountain Institute, a non-partisan non-profit think tank, shows that electrifying residential space and water heating saves money for consumers and paves the way for large-scale decarbonization. The researchers who authored the analysis, titled,“The Economics of Electrifying Buildings,” recommend that regulators, policymakers, and utilities prioritize rapid electrification, and that they stop supporting the expansion of the natural gas distribution system for residential and commercial buildings.

National Grid also objected to party status requests by several other groups who have expressed opposition to the E37 project, including Sane Energy Project, a renewable energy advocacy group, and Stop NY Fracked Gas Pipeline. 

“It’s clear, they’re trying to kill the opposition,” Kim Fraczek, director of Sane Energy Project, told the Energy and Policy Institute. “They know we will be able to make a strong case against this pipeline extension, which just increases our dependence on fossil fuels.”   

The PSC has not ruled yet on the utility’s objections to Sane Energy Project, Stop NY Fracked Gas Pipeline, and other entities seeking party status.

Ghostwriters and Moratoriums

The Albany Times-Union recently detailed how a Rensselaer County official copy and pasted his letter of support for National Grid’s E37 pipeline from a template provided to him by the utility. The Energy and Policy Institute obtained the emails exposing the ghostwriting effort.  

National Grid’s campaign to build support for, and prevent alternative voices from being heard on its pipeline expansion project has occurred while the utility battled Governor Andrew Cuomo over gas hookups on Long Island.

In a gambit to pressure Cuomo to approve a new gas pipeline into the region, National Grid had refused to install new gas hookups on Long Island. In response, Cuomo threatened to revoke the utility’s license to operate in New York, finally forcing National Grid’s hand to renew all gas service on November 25. 

As part of the settlement, the utility agreed to pay $36 million in penalties. Some of the money will address “new energy conservation measures and clean energy projects as directed by the Director of the New York State Division of the Budget in consultation with the Public Service Commission,” according to the Office of the Governor. 

Also as part of the settlement, National Grid will present to public officials a long-term plan within three months, subject to a review process, that will be in place by the fall of 2021.

Posted by Itai Vardi