Corporate versus Public Power

Corporations and the community vie for control of Syracuse’s electrical power.

By Daniel Bortz and Roxanne Broda-Blake

Rachel May opens her energy bill every month with hesitation. She pays, on average, about $120 per month in the summer and around $220 during the harshest winter months in Syracuse.

She makes a conscious effort to conserve energy by improving her home’s insulation, replacing drafty windows, using a programmable thermostat to lower the temperature in the winter, hanging laundry out to dry, and taking shorter showers to reduce hot water use. But despite her various efforts, the price keeps escalating.

“No matter how much I save energy, no matter how much I try to reduce my energy use, I don’t reap much of a benefit because the delivery charge seems to keep going up,” May said. “Just as a consumer, it sends the wrong message. If you want people to conserve, but they don’t reap any benefits from it, that’s a problem.”

May, the director of the Office of Environment and Society at Syracuse University and the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry, knows the negative effects of wasting energy. She joins a number of Syracuse residents searching for a cheaper, greener, and more efficient energy plan for the city.

The Central New York Public Power coalition developed a plan to shift control from National Grid, a multi-city corporation, to a locally-run board of Syracuse residents who would control the city’s energy sources. Public Power began gathering volunteers and support from the Syracuse community in 2006 in an effort to convince the mayor’s office to execute its plan.

Thom Dellwo, an active Public Power volunteer, highlighted that National Grid isn’t an energy-producing plant. Instead, it simply acts a corporate middleman between the citizens of Syracuse and the energy plants. The coalition believes that replacing the company with an elected board of officials could result in an economic and social rebirth for Syracuse.

Coalition members like Dellwo worked closely with the Syracuse Common Council to allocate $150,000 to hire the Boston-based engineering company Source One to investigate the feasibility of the new plan. But when Source One completed the initial phase of its study, Mayor Matthew Driscoll’s office decided not to pursue the installation of Public Power in Syracuse any further.

“It’s an expensive process that the mayor and the Common Council chose not to pursue,” said Tim Carroll, the director of operations at city hall. “It could potentially cost hundreds of millions of dollars.” The first phase of the study revealed a lot of challenges that would accompany implementing Public Power’s system, he added.

Patricia Body, a Syracuse native and Public Power volunteer, regards city hall’s actions with frustration. She believes Public Power is the key to her city’s rebirth and thinks the mayor’s office is preventing the possibility of growth. “This is an opportunity to produce energy in a more environmentally-conscious way,” she said. “It could open up a whole new field,” with the potential to make Syracuse “an exciting place to live.”

Body wants to see her hometown prosper. “I really care about my city, and it’s been in decline for a while,” she said. “I do believe that if we reduce the cost of energy in the city, it could bring businesses back.” A publicly run plan like the Public Power Coalition, Body added, would reduce Syracuse’s carbon footprint and attract people in surrounding towns still relying on National Grid.

Unlike National Grid’s corporate approach, Public Power members like Body push for an entirely volunteer-run grassroots movement. They advocate for the alternative energy plan through petitions, signage, word of mouth, and letters to city hall. The coalition also holds trimonthly meetings to discuss ways of pushing the plan through the mayor’s office.

“The public can actually raise hell if things are not to their liking,” Dellwo said of electing a Public Power board.

Public Power’s plan could also create jobs in Syracuse. National Grid doesn’t stimulate local jobs, often pulling workers from other parts of the country. Localizing Syracuse’s power distribution would call for an additional workforce to oversee the new system and reduce high energy costs, Dellwo said.

May agreed with Dellwo that National Grid’s for-profit mentality creates problems. Energy companies often charge high-energy consumers a lower rate than those who use less, May explained. “That does two things that penalize the small users, which are often poor people or sometimes just normal homeowners. It also doesn’t encourage the kind of conservation that you would like to see,” she said. “If you’re getting a lower price for using more, that’s just a very poor message. It’s the opposite of the message you should be getting.”

Dellwo’s passion for finding alternatives to nuclear energy and a relocation to Syracuse led him to discover Public Power two years ago. He joined the coalition in hopes of helping Syracuse achieve a publicly owned energy system, with less money going toward nuclear energy. “One of the issues that drives our use of nuclear power is that we have investor-owned utilities, corporations like National Grid, and they control where the power comes from,” he explained.

A privately held corporation’s primary job is to bring in profit for its stockholders, Dellwo said. Therefore, a corporation like National Grid’s main priority is its shareholders — not its consumers.

Meanwhile, Public Power hopes to offer better customer care by breaking away from National Grid. Because energy is a necessity in a cold city like Syracuse, Dellwo said distribution should be structured more like sewer, water supply, and garbage removal systems. “We think that the profit motive shouldn’t drive that industry,” he said.

But May said there are some advantages to a large corporation controlling the energy supply. National Grid has the money and the manpower to immediately bring down energy prices, unlike a smaller organization. The company’s employees working in the Syracuse area lead education on energy conservation and offer tips to reducing electricity. “They have made efforts to be good corporate citizens,” May said.

houses covered in snowYet Dellwo argues investor-owned systems like National Grid disregard the voice of consumers. He said Public Power’s plan focuses on consumers’ opinions by creating a board of elected officials to supply Syracuse’s energy. Syracuse residents would have a voice in their energy sources, obtaining an option to break away from nuclear power and National Grid’s tightly gripped monopoly.

Cheaper energy also means less worry for low- and fixed-income residents during cold months. “One of the major things we deal with in Syracuse is winter shut-offs,” Dellwo said. “A for-profit corporation can never justify keeping someone’s lights on if they can’t pay their bills.”

“We would still need people to pay their bills, but public utilities are run by the people who pay the bills, and our focus is to keep costs down,” he added. “If I couldn’t pay my bill, I could go to the board to make my case.”

May said she thinks Mayor Driscoll contributed a great deal toward energy conservation, even though Public Power is no longer an option. Driscoll outlined Syracuse’s energy problem as one of the major issues he’d address during his time in office, and she feels he tried to target the problem. But at the same time, May said the mayor’s office could have done more.

“I’ve heard people making it sound like (Public Power’s plan) was the answer to all of the problems, and then I’ve heard people saying, ‘No, it really wouldn’t work here,’” May said. “I think it’s one of those things where I would have to be persuaded that it’s really workable.”

Although a publicly-run energy system no longer coincides with city hall’s agenda, Mayor Driscoll did ask Source One to conduct a different study, city hall official Carroll said. The engineering firm is now exploring the installation of solar panels at five city-owned facilities, including the Department of Parks and Recreation and Hancock Airport.

While those solar panels would provide green energy to government complexes, they wouldn’t change the city’s relationship with National Grid or give Syracuse residents lower energy rates, Carroll said. He added that city hall has no plans to explore providing renewable energy for city residents and, as far as he knows, neither does Driscoll’s successor Stephanie Miner, who will take office in January.

Dellwo is also unsure where the mayor-elect stands on the issue of Public Power. He acknowledges her success as a public figure and contributor to the community, but also notes her financial conservatism. He fears the coalition won’t have a public ally, but said Public Power is open to working with Miner and figuring out how to present its case to her.

Still, May said the problem isn’t that the residents of Syracuse don’t put in the effort needed to reduce their electricity bills and bring renewable energy into their homes, but that there’s a lack of unity. She added that Public Power advocates, city hall, and National Grid need to work together in order to tackle the city’s energy problems. “They’re not being brought together to leverage them into something that would make a dfference citywide.”