New York’s Heck of a Job

Second Brown Goes Down
By A. G. Moore  1/5/2013

Aerial View of Hurricane Sandy 10/24/2012
from the National Environmental Visualization Laboratory
Public Domain

In trying to assign responsibility for the lack of governance after Hurricane Sandy, I am reminded of the Nast cartoon which shows Tammany politicians standing in a circle: everyone is pointing a finger at the person next to him. I’m also reminded of the Hans Christian Anderson fairytale, The Emperor’s New Clothes. Am I the only one who sees that it is the Governor’s responsibility to organize the affairs of state? It is the Governor who oversees the Public Service Commission, which is mandated “to ensure safe, secure, and reliable access to electric, gas, steam, telecommunications, and water services for New York State’s residential and business consumers…”

In September of 2011, Commissioner Garry Brown of the PSC held a news conference in which he discussed the aftermath of Hurricane Irene. In discussing extensive power outages he described a regional catastrophe, one that precluded local utilities from offering assistance to neighbors because they themselves were overwhelmed. He said crews were coming from as far away as Nebraska to help out. At the end of his conference he promised the PSC would “be examining the practices and efforts of utilities to see if there are any problems or concerns…”

That was 13 months before Sandy struck. While residents of the state and media outlets discovered many “concerns” with the utilities’, especially LIPA’s response, apparently Commissioner Brown did not. Not enough to insist upon emergency action to bring the utilities’ response capabilities up to snuff. Not enough to make sure all of the vacancies on LIPA’s board were filled.

In September of 2011, Mark Harrington of Newsday reported that Irene “knocked out power to more than 523,000 — or around half — of LIPA’s customers”. In response, LIPA “assembled 7,500 workers” to get the power back on. Even with this response, there was a lack of coordination between work crews and with local government. LIPA’s post-Irene response was acknowledged by all to be a dismal failure.

As Sandy set its sights on Northeast coastal communities–in particular, Long Island–how did the PSC prepare for the imminent emergency? Governor Cuomo declared a State of Emergency on October 26 — in his declaration he said that Administration officials “conducted a conference call earlier today with the Chief Executive Officers of all the public utilities and the Public Service Commission to plan for storm preparations, recovery and response. Approximately 2700 utility workers are on alert to assist in storm preparation around the state. Additional crews will be deployed for post-storm recovery”.

After Hurricane Irene it took 7,500 workers on Long Island alone to restore power slowly and ineptly, and yet with Sandy bearing down, the PSC was content to have available only 2700 workers statewide for the storm’s aftermath.

I checked up on the activities of the PSC over the last year. There is evidence in the public record of discussions about getting ready for a Smart Grid, which would increase New York State’s wholesale (bulk) electric capacity and security. There is much agreement in these discussions about cooperation between private utilities and government. Talk of investments and government grants predominates; money, it is clear, will pour into the coffers of utilities as they work on the Smart Grid. Leading these discussions is PSC Commissioner Brown.

What happened to Brown’s post-Irene promised examination of “practices and efforts of utilities to see if there are problems or concerns” in delivery of electrical service to the retail consumer? What, exactly, did Commissioner Brown do to advance the integrity of electrical delivery to the end-line consumer (for example: Were utility poles stockpiled in anticipation of the next emergency? Was a stepped-up tree-trimming program put into effect?)

While Commissioner Brown and his peers from the utility industry (as Brown’s CV reveals, he spent 27 years as a utility executive) planned for a Smart Grid, the basic building blocks of a utility’s infrastructure eroded even further after Irene. Poles listed and rotted. Lines sagged and threaded through intruding tree branches. And the LIPA communication network remained an anachronistic wonder: Work assignments were handed out on chits of paper. There was no computer-coordinated central command that oversaw and organized utility workers as they went into the field. While Commissioner Brown and the utility companies had their sights on a Smart Grid, the ground operation that is supposed to deliver electricity to the consumer was anything but smart.

In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, Governor Cuomo made blustery statements about holding the utility companies, especially LIPA, accountable for their abysmal post-Sandy performance. Though the Governor didn’t give the PSC Commissioner a “Heck of a job, Brownie” endorsement, neither did he call Brown to account. I believe the Governor demurs on Brown’s responsibility because that responsibility is also his. The Governor has been firmly invested in the Smart Grid project; where he has not invested his political capital is in nuts and bolts infrastructure. He has been so disengaged from end-line issues of the utilities that he never even bothered to appoint replacement commissioners to LIPA’s Board.

Utility poles? Tree trimming? On-the-ground communication network? Borrring.

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