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Utilities under scrutiny

Nearly 2 million people in the Northeast lost power in the snowstorms on March 2 and March 7. In the town of Lumberland 1,321 customers were still without power on March 8, a full week after the first storm blew through the region.

Some local officials said the utilities that maintain the wires and other infrastructure that carry electricity to homes and businesses failed their customers and the community.

Sullivan County legislator Nadia Rajsz, who represents the area in Sullivan County that was hardest hit in the storm, said at a county meeting on March 8, “It was quite devastating, yes, this was a devastating storm. However with all of the storms we’ve had, this was the longest period of time that we did not have restoration within some normal period of time… Typically three days, maybe four; but to go on for seven or eight days or even more, because some of these people are looking at two or three days more out before being restored… I’m not sure what they were thinking if anything, they did deploy some crews, but [the response] wasn’t enough and it wasn’t timely.

County legislator Joe Perello pointed out that the outages were widespread, and he stepped up to defend the people working on the lines. “Everybody bashes NYSEG and other companies, and maybe they didn’t respond as quickly—but you know something, those guys had to leave their families to come work for us.”

Rajsz said she was not talking about the crews but about upper management and the CEOs, who failed to do what they had to do. Rajsz was not the only elected official who expressed the view that utilities had failed to mount a sufficient response to the storms.

New York State had more than 280,000 customers without power at the height of the outages. Gov. Andrew Cuomo said the situation merited special review. On March 6 a day before the second storm he said, “While we’ve made progress, frankly the progress isn’t good enough, and it’s not fast enough. I’m going to direct John Rhodes from the Public Service Commission to do a full review of how the utility companies handled the situation. I’m not satisfied. I think it’s unacceptable. These storms have now become the rule rather than the exception and [the utilities] have to have the capacity to quickly restore power. You know, I joke that I’ve been through five 100-year storms in two years. This is the new normal. and they have to be ready for it, and frankly, I’m getting tired of having the same conversation with them. So, the PSC will do a full review.”

In New Jersey, Gov. Phil Murphy also ordered an investigation into the response from utilities after a total of 350,000 customers lost power, and thousands were still dark from the first storm a day after the second storm hit. Murphy said the investigation would determine if all appropriate “preparedness measures were taken.” He said, “My gut tells me they were not, and if not, that is entirely inexcusable.” 

There is a general sense that infrastructure in general, and electric infrastructure specifically, is not maintained in the present as thoroughly as it had been in the past, and the number of people employed by utilities to maintain the lines is much fewer than in previous decades. Those observations came from a source with a good deal of knowledge on the topic.

A member of one of the line crews told a resident during the recovery operation that trees near the lines here in Sullivan County were not trimmed nearly as well as the lines in Quebec, where he normally works.

So the question is would there still have been outages in our if area if NYSEG, Orange and Rockland Utilities, and PPL had taken more aggressive action to maintain their lines and prepare for outages? The answer is probably yes, power outages would still have occurred, but they likely could have been reduced in number and duration.

While customers now have a choice in choosing the company that will supply their electricity, it’s an opaque system, and a majority of customers don’t make a choice and simply allow the default provider to serve them.

Customers still have no choice at all about which company owns the lines that bring power to their homes. That is still very much a monopoly, and one that could and should be better regulated.

It’s not surprising then that the Sullivan County Legislature unanimously passed a resolution on March 8, endorsing the Governor’s call for an investigation and reimbursement for customers who were denied power for more than a day.

 

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