Providence Journal

Seth Handy: Paper's censorship vs. the facts of renewable energy



 It is sad and ironic that the opportunity for good legislation on the interconnection of renewable energy to Rhode Island’s electricity-distribution system was squandered by utility lobbying and The Providence Journal’s one-sided coverage of one developer’s (Wind Energy Development LLC) alleged undue influence (“Favor to wind-project developer could cost electric rate payers,” June 12; “Republicans want provision that aids R.I. wind-power developer removed,” June 13; “{House Speaker Nicholas} Mattiello removes provision to benefit big donor, cost rate payers,” June 14; and “Wind power favor yanked” and the editorial “No favor to R.I. ratepayers,’’ both on June 15).  I was quoted in one article and write to correct the record.  

I sent this column to The Journal's editorial-page editor, Edward Achorn, but he declined to run it.

Interconnection legislation is needed and good for the people of Rhode Island. I explained that to the reporter but he neglected to report it.  Our utility, National Grid, administers interconnection to protect its interest in the existing energy system, to the detriment of a new-energy economy that greatly benefits Rhode Island.  The utility has a history of inflating interconnection costs and delaying interconnection to an extent that many good projects cannot withstand and others are severely overburdened. 

The assertion that this bill was to benefit one developer is wrong; interconnection obstructs many good projects.  Sadly, too many developers are scared to speak out, because the utility still controls too much of the fate of their projects.  National Grid’s abuse of its discretion on interconnection was especially obvious in response to the proposed large Coventry wind project. National Grid refused to interconnect some turbines and sought to charge Wind Energy Development $13 million  as part of the process of replacing much of Coventry’s antiquated poles and wires. 

But interconnection problems are rampant in Rhode Island and across America.  When our “regulated utility” is inadequately regulated, as it has been on interconnection, it is the General Assembly’s duty to protect Rhode Island’s interests through legislation.  The interconnection bill put necessary parameters on utility control over interconnection.  It was supported by the state Office of Energy Resources and passed the House of Representatives twice by nearly unanimous vote because it is good policy.

National Grid is not a benign steward of ratepayer interests; it is a corporation based in England.  When its shareholders’ interests conflict with those of our ratepayers, it favors its shareholders.  That is why, for instance, National Grid reported $8 million in annual profits for operating Rhode Island’s municipal streetlights all made while it refused to authorize conversion to more efficient LED fixtures that have much lower maintenance costs.  

National Grid’s conflicting interest on local renewables was evident in its proposal to charge Wind Energy Development an access fee to use the distribution system that was put forth without even considering the General Assembly’s order that it first weigh the economic benefits of local generation.  Unanimous opposition led National Grid to withdraw that access fee just before the state Public Utilities Commission hearing.

Studies consistently show that local renewables benefit all ratepayers by reducing the costs of energy, capacity, transmission, distribution, line-loss, operating risk, environmental, and other known and measurable costs of our energy system.  A national expert presented this information at the State House on March 24, 2016; you can watch it on Capitol TV.  The Journal’s reporting that an interconnection policy that fairly allocates responsibility for system upgrades benefitting all customers would cost us all and unduly subsidize renewables ignored that ratepayers already pay National Grid to maintain and improve its distribution system.  Most importantly, it overlooks the savings that renewables produce for our energy system.  The reporter that interviewed me chose to ignore all that.

National Grid spent at least $84,000 on lobbying this legislative session. Their reporting  of their lobbying is unclear and it is hard to track their legislative contributions apparently made through their lobbyist’s Political Action Committee (PAC), “Advocacy Political Action.”  Those of us regularly pushing for good energy legislation face the utility’s resistance, not so much in the hearings but late in the session from back rooms of the State House.

 Last year, this interconnection law that unanimously passed the House was victim to the Senate’s early adjournment.  This year, after very supportive hearings and near unanimous approval from the House, National Grid worked to strip it through the Senate.  I deplore the impact of money in politics, but the U.S. Supreme Court’s free speech cases, like Citizens United, protect such spending to sway government action.  For The Journal to deride influence sought by a renewable- energy developer awkwardly overlooks the massive influence such developers are up against.   National Grid spends huge sums of ratepayer dollars on advertising, much of which is in The Journal.  Such well-funded speech evidently earns greater protection. 

At the end of this legislative session, strategic and poorly reported last-minute flame-throwing beat down a good bill.  The utility still holds its strings on interconnection.  Now that the dust has settled we can reflect on that.  Much may be vested in our existing energy system, but our people are not well served by its exceptionally high cost, insecurity and other bad impacts.  To change that, we need to correct the mechanics under which alternatives are delivered.  Those of us who are passionate about Rhode Island’s energy future remain confident that justice ultimately will be served through policies that promote the public good, despite all the financial interests that obstruct them.

Seth Handy is a lawyer in Providence.

RIP, Providence's Sal Laterra: Part of a quiet immigrant family's success story

Sal Laterra, for nearly 50 years a familiar presence at Paramount Cleansers, on Union Street, in Providence, died unexpectedly at Massachusetts General Hospital on May 3. He had celebrated his 90th birthday on the preceding Wednesday.

Born in Providence on April; 27, 1926, he was a son of Joseph and Elisabetta (Autiello) Laterra, immigrants, respectively, from Sicily andsouthern mainland Italy. He attended Mount Pleasant High School, but left school when he was 17 to join the Marines in World War II began. As a member of the Third Marine Division, he participated in the freeing of Guam from the Japanese, and his unit was in China awaiting orders to invade Japan when the atomic bombs were dropped.

Proud Marine though he was, he happily returned home to Providence and soon joined his father in the dry-cleaning and tailoring business that Joseph Laterra had opened 20 years earlier at the suggestion of then Providence Journal editor and later publisher/editor Sevellon Brown. For the next 40 years, Sal Laterra would be a familiar presence on Union Street, cleaning and tailoring clothes for Providence mayors and Rhode Island governors, Brown and RISD professors and Providence Journal reporters and editors.

At the end of each day, by pre-arrangement, he would hurry out into Union Street with a smile and a wave, with an armful of clothes that had been tailored or cleaned, and hand them out quickly to patrons who slowed down in their cars. At the death of his father, in 1987, he inherited the shop and it continued in business until his own retirement, in 1995. By then his son, John, was well embarked on his career as a neurologist at Johns Hopkins Hospital, in Baltimore (he was named one of the nation’s top neuro-oncologists by Newsweek earlier this year), and his daughter, Elizabeth, was in a post with the National Security Agency. He was ready, he said, to spend more time with his wife, Alda (Pontarelli) Laterra, and in the garden he had planted beside his Naples Avenue, Providence, house. He had bought the lot, he said, not only so  that he and his family could enjoy it, but for the enjoyment of neighbors who had lots too small to have gardens. Having grown up in a six-story Providence tenement with no land around it, he said, he knew how you could long for a garden.

Always an outdoorsman, he also hoped to spend more time bicycling, skiing and mountain climbing. He was always proud of having skiied France’s Chamonix glacier and climbed Maine’s Mount Katahdin, and peaks in the White Mountains with the late Providence Journal art critic Bradford F. Swan and the late Journal photographer Andtrew Dickerman. In retirement, he bicycled with enthusiasm, joining the Narragansett Bay Wheelmen. In 1985, when he was 58, he had been featured on the Sunday Journal’s Health and Fitness insert as a prime example of a healthy Rhode Island outdoorsman. (It was not the first time that he had been featured on a Sunday Journal supplement cover. In 1967, his picture had been on the Rhode Islander cover when Paramount Cleansers itself was the subject of a story on the tailoring business.)

Although his wife died soon after his retirement, he continued to tend the garden they had both so enjoyed, and to travel as they had traveled together. He revisited the China he had known as a young Marine, and went on in Asia to visit Thailand and Vietnam. He also went to Australia and New Zealand, Mexico, Argentina and Chile, France, Germany, Switzerland, Spain, Portugal, the Azores, Italy, Sicily, Turkey, England and Scotland, and crossed both the United States and Canada by train. On his travels, he perfected his photography -- a talent  that he had helped develop in the Providence Journal darkroom. As a memorial to his wife, he established a children’s book fund at the Providence Community Library on Academy Avenue.

He is survived by his daughter, Elizabeth Hobbins of Laurel, Md., his son, John Laterra, M.D., Ph.D., of Baltimore, and three grandchildren, Catherine Hobbins of Columbia, Md.; Sarah Yusko of Westminster, Colo., and Anne Laterra of Atlanta  and a brother, Joseph Laterra of Wickford. He was predeceased  by his wife and two sisters, Adeline McGuirk and Lucy Pettinato.

A memorial service will be held at a time to be announced.

-- Phyllis Meras

Masters of letters to the editor

Years ago, not when I worked there, The Providence Journal, in its prosperous and growing days, had an annual dinner to honor the best writers of letters to the editor in the previous year.

Over the years there have been masters of that craft on the Commentary pages. Three who come to mind; Robert Riesman, an eloquent  and urbane businessman, philanthropist, military expert and leading national Democrat who died in 2004; Felicia Nimue Ackerman, a Brown University philosophy professor who is still going strong, and another great friend of mine, Marvin Greenberg, a retired business executive and health-policy expert who recently died after a long, tough battle against cancer.

Whatever the occasional dissimilarities of their views, their letters  usually share  the concision, general knowledge, logic and humor, especially in denunciation, necessary for a memorable letter to the editor in a general-interest publication. 

I'm sorry I wasn't around to attend one of those dinners where some masters of this very public craft were honored. 

I should also note that good writers of letters to the editor tend to be good company in person, too.

--- Robert Whitcomb

Hail and farewell, Howard Sutton

Kudos to my old boss, Howard Sutton, who is about to retire from  The Providence Journal, where he has been publisher for 15 years. He remained a quietly forceful and congenial leader of one of America's oldest journalist organizations while dealing with the   industry's vast competitive challenges  from the Internet and the move from private- and family -run newspaper companies to publicly held ones demanding much higher profit margins than before.

His good humor, unflappability and focus on the essentials of news coverage made him close to the perfect publisher for these tough times.


-- Robert Whitcomb


Might a nonprofit buy Providence Journal?

Word that A.H. Belo will sell the storied Providence Journal has New England journalists atwitter (so to speak) about whether a big for-profit media chain will buy it or whether a civic-minded nonprofit organization of affluent people with southeastern New England ties will try to acquire it to keep this public watchdog barking loud enough to restrain local scoundrels. There are a few papers around America set up as nonprofits. And Harper's Magazine is a nonprofit foundation -- (501(c)3 in the Internal Revenue Code.