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Lansing Natural Gas Moratorium

Proponents and opponents of making the Lansing natural gas moratorium permanent are getting ready to face off in another round of meetings with the New York State Public Service Commission (PSC) and New York State Electric & Gas (NYSEG).  At issue is whether or not a moratorium on new natural gas customers in the Town and Village of Lansing will be made permanent, as well as the larger picture of what kind of energy should be used in the town, especially for new development.

"Lansing is far from alone," says Tompkins County Legislature Chair Martha Robertson. "Westchester County now has a gas moratorium and other areas downstate are facing similar constraints. However, given the state's response with the Clean Energy Action Plan – moving away from gas to solve the energy demands of Westchester and Lansing – it is just not realistic to expect a new pipeline to be approved for Lansing. Instead, Lansing can lead the way into the future. It can and should serve as a pilot community for NYS to demonstrate how to succeed with 'non-pipes alternatives' if given full financial resources to incentivize conversion from gas to electric heating in our buildings.

Opponents of the moratorium say that the dearth of natural gas has already cost new businesses and jobs, and that natural gas is needed as a 'transition' form of energy while alternative technologies are developed to the point where they can practically deliver energy traditional sources currently deliver.  Proponents note that as current customers switch to renewable alternatives that they will free some natural gas capacity for those new business uses that absolutely require natural gas, and the rest should be using renewable energy anyway, notably heat pumps.

NYSEG started with a plan to bring more natural gas to the Town, but today the company advocates making the moratorium permanent..  The current infrastructure had reached the capacity of its ability to safely and reliably deliver natural gas to Lansing.  NYSEG said that it could not reliably deliver natural gas to the Lansing school campus during peak use scenarios, which is at the end of NYSEG's natural gas infrastructure in the Town.  In 2014 NYSEG proposed a new pipeline to bring natural gas from Freeville, along West Dryden and Farrell Roads to the Warren Road area of Lansing.  But opposition to the pipeline, particularly in the Town of Dryden made the prospect of getting easements for the pipeline very bleak.  And opponents of any use of fossil fuels weighed in, saying that no new natural gas infrastructure should be considered.

In February of 2017 the Tompkins County Energy and Economic Development Task Force (EEDTF) announced its support of a NYSEG plan that would impose a moratorium on new gas customers in the Lansings. The two-part plan proposed that 1) a compressor would be installed in the Town of Lansing to insure a steady flow of gas delivery to existing customers, and 2) creative solutions would be proposed to reduce natural gas use, and the existing moratorium on new natural gas customers in Lansing would be extended indefinitely.  The three principal Lansing elected officials -- Hartill, Lansing Town Supervisor Ed LaVigne, and Tompkins County Legislator (District 6, which covers most of the Town of Lansing) Mike Sigler -- said at that time that they had not been invited or included in the discussion, and all three have fiercely advocated to lift the moratorium.  EEDTF members countered that Legislator Glenn Morey (District 7) represents Lansing.  But Sigler, LaVigne, and Hartill pointed out that he represents a sliver of the Town, and a portion of the town that may be more likely to support natural gas delivery at that.  Legislator Deborah Dawson (District 10) represents the Villages of Lansing and Cayuga heights.

By December of 2017 the PSC had approved the compressor proposal, but NYSEG later reneged, claiming a new analysis of their data showed that the current infrastructure does safely and reliably deliver natural gas, even to the Lansing schools.  Officially the pipeline is not off the table.  A Request For Proposals was unsuccessful in soliciting new ideas for providing energy to Lansing.  Now local officials are planning meetings with the PSC and NYSEG to talk about next steps and current concerns.

Monday Village of Lansing Mayor Donald Hartill accused Robertson and other non-Lansing officials of setting a May 22 meeting that he, LaVigne, and Sigler are not available to attend.

"There has been a strong-agenda-driven campaign to say 'no more natural gas, period'," Hartill told the Village Trustees. "There will be a meeting on the 22nd of May which neither Ed, nor myself, nor the Town of Lansing representative to the County Legislature (Sigler) will be able to attend."

Robertson had a different take on the meeting.  She said that as of Tuesday morning the May 22 date had not been confirmed, and was only one of several dates being considered.  But Thursday she reported that May 22 meeting had been confirmed.

"We see this as a huge opportunity," she said. "I've spoken at length with Mike Sigler and I agree with his characterization that the various parties are not that far apart in our goals. We want to see economic development and growth to support good-paying jobs in the Village and Town of Lansing, but that development is now being stymied by the lack of natural gas."

Agreement on the need for more natural gas is far from unanimous in the Town and Village.  In April LaVigne himself said that he would support an effort to not only get the Cayuga Solar 75 acre, 18 megawatt solar farm funded and built, but would like to see a 200 acre solar farm there that he said might be enough to motivate the company to abandon plans to repower the power plant with natural gas.  At the same time he is a strong proponent of bringing more natural gas to Lansing to encourage new development, particularly business development in the Town.

But the Lansing Town Board is split on the issue, more or less along party lines.  Nevertheless, even those who want natural gas now say they don't want it forever.  They say that it is a necessity now as a 'transition' solution while renewable energy technology is being developed to the point where it could replace fossil fuels once and for all.

In the Village Hartill said that he has received 'a significant number of emails' on the topic, all opposing lifting the moratorium or bringing more natural gas to the Lansings. 

"The synagogue up the street converted from natural gas to air source heat pumps supplemented by natural gas," Hartill said. "There was a note from one of the people in that congregation saying they had actually saved money.  But if you look at the details the power consumption went up by 30%, but the cost changed by $40 in about $3,000 worth of electricity.  So there was some interesting math going on there."

He also said that proponents of heat pump technology are overstating savings, even when you factor in state incentives available to Lansingites who install heat pumps because of the moratorium.

"If you want to put in an air source heat pump you'll get $1,250 per ton," Hartill said. "For a house like mine it's probably six tons to do something like that. It covers maybe half the cost in a very optimistic view."

He also delivered a scathing indictment on the idea of relying on one source of energy (electricity), especially in light of an aging and sometimes failing power grid.  The Town of Lansing has suffered a spate of power outages, some lasting several hours at a time.  Many townspeople have reported losing electronic devices and appliances because of surges and blackouts.

"We haven't had as many (in the Village)," Hartill said.  "But we've had a few.  My clocks were un-set.  I've lost a modem."

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Hartill frequently points out that NYSEG's electrical grid is at least 50 years old, and is running at up to 90% of it's capacity. 

"Any system that you're running at 90% of its capacity has risks," he said.  "California's grid is typically running at 90%. PG&E  (Pacific Gas & Electric) is now bankrupt because of the fires, and they have just made a statement that 'we're just going to shut it off'.  And they're going to do it. So depending on one single source for your energy is short sighted."

That may be another starting point the two sides can agree on.

"A related problem we will raise on May 22 is the electric grid," Robertson said. "Transitioning to all-electric buildings (and eventually cars as well) needs a robust grid. The support we're seeking needs to include an analysis of the capacity of the electric grid in Lansing, to support the transition from gas to electric, and significant funding to upgrade the grid with needed improvements."

Hartill said that he, LaVigne, and Sigler plan to request their own meeting with PSC and NYSEG officials some time in June..

"Our strategy is to request a separate meeting," he said.  "What's happened in the past in these kinds of group things is that there's an agreed-upon statement on how it's going to happen. When you get before the PSC, all of a sudden it is 'free play'.  So we've been down that road before.  I'm just not interested in playing that game any more.  Neither is Ed nor Mike."

While there is still some sniping between the two sides, there is also, at least, partial agreement.  Everyone agrees that providing plentiful and reliable energy to the Lansings is important, especially in light of the town's unique potential for business development, fueled by the Airport's location in the Village of Lansing.  Everyone seems to agree that improvements to the electrical grid are essential.  LaVigne has said many times that Lansing needs energy, and he doesn't care what kind it is as long as power is delivered to the Town.  His concern is that alternatives are simply not ready to replace natural gas and traditional methods of providing electricity -- yet.

Robertson says she will continue to advocate for clean energy, but also for a reliable electricity delivery grid.

"On May 22 we'll be meeting with Commission Chair John Rhodes and high-level staff from DPS, NYSERDA, and NYSEG. We need the full support of the PSC and NYSERDA – and NYSEG – to do both the grid improvements and the non-pipe alternatives. That's our goal in going to Albany."

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