A public outcry developed last year over LIPA’s performance in restoring electric service in the wake of tropical storm Irene. In response Governor Cuomo took the unusual step of requesting the Public Service Commission to investigate why it took the utility over a week to repair the system – unusual because LIPA is not regulated by the PSC like the private utilities.
After months of study by Vantage Consultants hired by the PSC to investigate, the results are out and it appears that much of the criticism of LIPA’s response to the storm was justified.
Among its 100 findings and recommendations, Vantage saw poor communication as probably one of the most important problems in Irene. Customers could not reach the utility and when they did there was little or no information made available. At the same time government officials were unable to obtain updates from LIPA to pass on to their constituents. More troubling, the utility experienced problems with its own internal communications hindering recovery operations.
Vantage observed that a particularly significant problem with communication was LIPA’s inability to provide an estimate for restoring service because of deficiencies in damage assessment and an antiquated outage management system. Vantage further noted inconsistencies in the recorded number of workers performing damage assessment and the failure of LIPA to act on a 2006 consultant’s recommendation to replace the outage management system. Additionally, it was evident that LIPA had not fully implemented recommendations from its Lessons Learned study of the severe March, 2010 storm.
Another deficiency cited by the consultant was in tree trimming. Contrary to the many LIPA assertions about an aggressive tree trimming program, Vantage viewed efforts in this area not being up to industry standards, along with measures taken in storm hardening and information technology in general.
Many of LIPA’s problems with storm response appear to reflect its unusual utility business structure which relies on a major contractor to operate its system. During storms it is not absolutely clear who has responsibility for what. In Irene LIPA would review and approve all messages to the public, serving as a bottleneck and hindering effective communications. In the process LIPA mostly observed what was going on and in some cases got in the way disrupting recovery operations.
Compounding the problem, it is surprising to learn that National Grid, LIPA’s major contractor, has its own emergency plan while at the same time LIPA has a separate plan. What is even more startling, these plans have sections which are in conflict and outdated.
In 18 months PSEG of New Jersey is scheduled to take over from National Grid as LIPA’s major contractor. In the meantime it is obvious that the National Grid and LIPA emergency plans need to be integrated and clarity of responsibility during storms established. This would minimize the confusion generated from LIPA’s organizational structure and provide a thought out means for meeting goals and managing events. It would also serve as a foundation for getting off on the right foot with PSEG.
Another important consideration though is the ability National Grid has to make use of its gas employees during storms to augment the manpower available for emergency restoration. This is something LIPA will have to address as part of the transition to PSEG since the new contractor does not have such a supplementary workforce on Long Island.
LIPA has indicated that it is in the process of addressing many of the recommendations of the Vantage Report. Hopefully they will persist
in this and not back off as they did for the 2006 consultant recommendation for a new outage management system and with the Lessons Learned from the March, 2010 storm. On the other hand, these recommendations are coming from a study coordinated by the PSC, a state agency with a sound reputation and long history in regulatory oversight so they are hard to ignore.
The bottom line for storms, LIPA needs to improve communications both external and internal, restore power more quickly and reduce total outages that may occur. As part of this the utility must improve damage prediction models and develop a capability to estimate restoration time at least to an acceptable degree. This is something expected of all utilities, private or public and regardless of business structure.
Matthew Cordaro is currently Chairman of the Suffolk County Legislature’s LIPA Oversight Committee and a former utility CEO and university dean and professor.