Utilities must do better on power outages

The review of electric companies’ responses to winter storms Riley and Quinn by the New York State Public Service Commission (PSC) is now underway, and three power companies in our region are under scrutiny: New York State Electric & Gas (NYSEG), Orange & Rockland Utilities (O&R) and Central Hudson.

Most people who experienced the storms understand that the response by the utilities was woefully inadequate. Some 127,000 power customers lost power, and some of them waited for as long as 10 days to have it restored. Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who ordered the review, said, “New York will hold these utility companies accountable and we will take action to ensure that outages like the ones experienced in March do not happen again.”

Speakers at a Resiliency Conference in the Town of Tusten said the power outages keep happening because the electric companies don’t make the investment in infrastructure that would be required to prevent storms from doing as much damage as they do now.

State Sen. John Bonacic, who announced this week he will not seek another term, said, “Sullivan County experienced crippling power outages resulting from back-to-back snow storms in March, and the response by the utility companies was inadequate.” He urged residents in his district to give input to the PSC.

Other officials have said that electric companies have cut back so far on maintenance, such as tree trimming, that when a storm does blow through the region, its force is much more destructive than it would otherwise be.

One person who shares that view is Jen Metzger, who is hoping to fill Sen. John Bonacic’s seat in January when he retires from the state senate. Metzger knows more than the average person about electricity infrastructure because of her position as director of Citizens for Local Power, an organization that “helps communities in the Mid-Hudson Region transition to a locally-based, clean energy economy.”

Metzger testified at the public hearing held by the Department of Public Service on Monticello on April 26, and recommended that the PSC increase penalties when utilities don’t meet reliability goals.

Metzger said that insufficient tree trimming by the utilities and a lack of manpower contributed significantly to the problems. She said, “Over the years, they have reduced the number of operational employees while expanding management staff, but it’s really the linemen and women who are critical to maintaining reliability. Again, it is about priorities—the utilities need to build local capacity for emergency storm restoration.”

A press release from her office added, “All three utilities requested mutual aid from other utilities in the region and as far away as Canada, and received far fewer linemen and women than requested.”

Many companies these days put profits over people and neglect maintaining infrastructure. It’s a recipe for disaster, as we saw with the March storms. It is up to the state government to compel the utility companies and also the communications companies to take steps that will substantially reduce the probability of future outages, as well as mitigate the impacts of any that do occur. But in doing so, we think they also need to look at the way those improvements are funded.

At the Tusten meeting, a NYSEG representative encouraged everyone to lobby the PSC to allow utilities to increase their rates to pay for engaging in more preventive maintenance. There is nothing new in this: it is a regular practice of the PSC to grant rates increase to utilities to recover the large sums they spend in the aftermath of events like the March storms. The problem is, however, that if costs from these events are more or less automatically passed on to the consumer, as opposed to hitting utilities’ bottom lines, the companies simply have no incentive to do better.

Why should they even try to invest their money and manage their personnel and equipment more efficiently if they know that no matter how badly they manage things or how much of a catastrophe ensues from a storm, the costs can be passed on to their customers? Unless they know they will take a good hard knock on profits if they don’t do a better job creating a robust infrastructure that will be resistant to outages, things are never going to get better.

We would like to see the PSC take a good, hard look at how the utilities are employing their labor and capital and make sure that, where companies are falling short, they are held accountable for it and don’t just get to pass the buck on to—or more accurately, take more bucks from—the consumer to pay for what could be their own negligence or incompetence.

 

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