Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Utilities and Hurricane Irene

LORAX's Patricia Podolak reports on Monday's WCBOL Committee on Environment & Energy Committee meeting:

FYI. This afternoon I took some time from my busy work schedule and attended the West. Co. Board of Legislators – Committee on Environment & Energy Meeting. The topic of today’s meeting was utility storm response. Representatives from Con Edison and NYSEG were present to discuss the recent electric outages and obstacles resulting from tropical Storm Irene. Leg. Kaplowitz was not present due to the recent, sudden passing of his father. Majority Leader Harckham chaired the meeting. Seven other legislators were in attendance. The meeting lasted 1.5 hours. 

In  brief overview:

·       PSC was invited to attend and was not present. Harckham termed this “very disturbing” and “an abomination."
·       Harckham raised the issue that no significant resources were available until Wednesday after the storm.
·       NYSEG emphasized the extreme differences between its service territory and that of Con Edison. Con Edison 380 sq miles. NYSEG 11,000 sq miles, 26 counties, 270 municipalities. NYSEG heavily rural and spread out, covering 44% of upstate. 15% of NYSEG customers were without power.
·       Con Ed said that they had 2 Incident Commanders (IC’s). NYSEG said that they had 1 IC and he came from a sister company in Maine and arrived on Wednesday.
·       Con Ed said that most power was restored by Thursday evening---97% of West Co. NYSEG took longer.
·       They both used first few days for clearing trees with help of DPWs. Then line outages addressed.
·       Both brought in out of state crews.
·       Con Ed sand bagged some substations due to the threat of flooding.
·       NYSEG said they experienced the worst infrastructure damage in 30 years. Brewster division heavily wooded and difficult to access. 3,000 wires down and 300 poles down.
·       NYSEG worked transmission segment first, then the distribution lines. Some substations were out.
·       Both claimed that they had a problem getting dry ice. One legislator noted that there is an ice company in Mamaroneck that was selling it after the storm.
·       Con Edison said that their approach has been having municipal liaisons and they plan to meet with municipal officials in the future and not the public
·       NYSEG said that they have too many municipalities to cover and that is why they can not have municipal liaisons. However, for this storm they said that they did use municipal liaisons in West Co.
·       Municipal officials were invited to speak. The Police Chief from Pound Ridge noted that their entire town was out and they only have NYSEG. He further noted that the municipal liaison approach was more of a problem than help for them because it introduced yet another layer in the process.
·       Both utilities said that they will not cover the cost of lost food because the outage was storm related.
·       There will be a follow-up meeting Sept 19 or 26. Issues were identified today. Plan of action to be addressed at next meeting.

In my opinion, both utilities should include the public in their meetings and not just select municipal officials.

With well organized emergency response and preparedness plans, everything should fall readily into place. There may be a few minor glitches which is all that a municipal liaison should have to become involved with. I agree with the Police Chief from Pound Ridge. Too many layers of bureaucracy can impede the restoration/recovery process and the municipal liaison should not play a major role.

NYSEG should use an in-state IC that is on staff.

It has been demonstrated repeatedly that the PSC is not in control where it should be. After years of dealing with this, it has become evident to me that the regulators are too close to the utilities. It is the PSC that should be investigated by our state elected officials. Reform is necessary at the level of the PSC. That is the only way to obtain significant change. Complaint letters to the PSC will only result in marginal actions.  

It should be further noted that trees are not the only cause of electrical outages during major storms. It is a complex issue that includes (and is not limited to) flooding, winds, aged infrastructure, employee training, emergency response procedures, etc.

There are individuals who have and who continue to try to address distribution line vegetation management issues. A regulatory approach would be the most effective. There are sensible ways and standards that can be utilized if officials are serious about it. However, one cannot ignore the significant impact of aged distribution line infrastructure (lines, poles, transformers, etc.) and lack of routine infrastructure maintenance. In the case of Con Edison, rather than clear cutting their transmission line where the outages are not occurring, it would be more prudent for them to shift resources to the distribution lines.

These are complex issues, and it is doubtful under current circumstances that complaints filed with the PSC will bring about long term necessary change.

Thank you.

Dr. Patricia Podolak
Chair, Utilities Oversight Committee
Town of Yorktown

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