Utilities face possible fines for 2018 storm responses

Utility crews clean up after a powerful wind storm in Putnam Valley on May 16, 2018. Photo by Mike Groll, courtesy of the Governor’s Office.

The New York State Public Service Commission has completed an investigation into the preparation and response by the state’s major utilities to five major storms that swept through New York in 2018. Each of those storms left more than 100,000 people without electricity.

The Department of Public Service identified 43 potential violations and instances where the utilities’ emergency response plans were not followed. While each of the regulated major electric utilities in the state were found to be at fault, New York State Electric & Gas Corp; Orange and Rockland Utilities, Inc.; and Consolidated Edison Company of New York, Inc. were the worst followers of protocol, according to the DPS report.

Winter Storms Riley and Quinn, which hit the mid-Hudson region five days apart in March, had peak outages of approximately 500,000 and 162,000, respectively, resulting in some customers being without power for more than a week.

In addition to storms Riley and Quinn, the Department’s investigation focused on three other storms in 2018: a windstorm in Western New York in April; a windstorm in the Plattsburgh and Glens Falls areas in early May; and a severe thunderstorm in the mid-Hudson region in mid-May.

Among the issues identified were issues with operations, such as planning, internal staffing, as well as crew acquisition and crew management.

Of notable concern, DPS staff uncovered information that NYSEG and Con Edison have been steadily reducing the number of line workers, which has had a direct result in the utilities’ poor initial responses and contributed overall to poor storm performance, the report finds.

Additionally, the investigation found that utility communications with customers and public officials were ineffective. Slow road-clearing efforts was blamed for impeding the delivery of the necessary resources and appropriate coordination with other partners, particularly municipal governments.

As a result of the investigation, utilities’ shareholders could face potential storm-related financial penalties for failing to comply with their state-approved emergency plans.

“When storms knock out power, it is the job of utilities to restore electricity to customers in a timely and safe manner, utilities are responsible for pre-storm preparation, and the implementation of restoration efforts after a storm to assure safe and adequate electric service to the public,” said Public Service Commission Chair John Rhodes. “It is mission-critical that our utilities are adequately prepared to meet and address these new realities and respond appropriately, including concretely improving plans and practices with each cycle. When a utility fails to meet its responsibilities and commitments, they must and will be held accountable.”

As a result of the investigation the Commission issued an order directing the companies to respond to the investigation and explain why they should not be found to have violated the emergency response plans, regulations and orders.

The order to show cause starts an enforcement proceeding; the PSC will review the record in the case before making a final determination regarding any potential penalties for Con Edison, NYSEG, RG&E, O&R, Central Hudson Gas & Electric Corporation and National Grid.

The investigation determined that PSEG Long Island did not deviate from its emergency response plan.

The Commission may order the utilities to implement the recommendations to improve emergency preparedness and response contained in the investigation report. Many of the recommendations have already been adopted by the utilities, the PSC said.