PSEG Long Island expects to mark six months on the job this weekend by powering up a bitterly contested new cable between Great Neck and Port Washington, an early milestone in the New Jersey company's plan to overhaul the Long Island grid.
The company, which took over management of the grid on Jan. 1, said the new 69,000-volt line, strung on poles 85 feet tall along a 6-mile stretch, was needed to improve reliability in the region. Residents and officials said the line should have been buried and residents given a chance to weigh in before work began. PSEG said an offer to bury the lines in the future stands, as long as residents pay for it.
PSEG's efforts to work a similar balancing act across Long Island in the first months of its tenure have seen successes and some mixed reviews. Back-office systems transitioned smoothly, PSEG said, and the company reports it has already met or exceeded most service targets.
But PSEG has yet to be tested by a major storm, and criticism continues to come from residents affected by obtrusive cable projects, severely trimmed trees and high winter electric bills sparked by soaring natural gas costs.
"It seems like a focus on reliability to the exclusion of other considerations, including health, safety and property values," said Brian Goldberg, a Port Washington resident who called the final appearance of the project in his community as "absolutely disgusting."
But Alice O'Dowd, who can see three new layers of wires cross the sky from her living-room window, conceded that even as she opposed it, the work may have benefits.
"After [superstorm] Sandy we were out for two weeks," she said of the power outage in November 2012. "Now that it's finished there's no sense being against it. I think it's going to be helpful to us."
A delicate balance
PSEG president David Daly said that as the company moves forward with new projects, it is working to incorporate recommendations from a Department of Public Service review to give customers a better picture of what's coming before work starts.
"We appreciate that this is a balance; that we have an obligation to bring reliable electric service, to have a system that can withstand storm events," he said. "We also appreciate very much that residents have passion around their communities, and at the end of the day we are committed to finding solutions which balance those two needs."
PSEG's approach on future projects will include customer outreach "further ahead in time with local communities that are impacted," Daly said.
He also vowed that PSEG, "well ahead of time," will present a clear picture of "what the alternatives are."
Daly added, "There are going to be many more projects."
Some customers questioned whether the effort to bring the LIPA system up to best industry practices has gone too far and whether the "listening" that PSEG did in advance of the trimming had any impact.
"They've absolutely butchered the trees from the North Shore to the South Shore," said Eric Mahler, a real estate broker in Baldwin. "They say they're doing it according to best industry practices and the International Society of Arboriculture . . . but I give them an F."
Critics cite high bills
Some of the most strident criticism has come from customers still reeling from a winter of record-high bills, who flooded PSEG's call center at near-record levels in February.
Daly said PSEG has improved call-answering times by shifting worker schedules to have more staff on the line during storms and on busy Mondays, and by presenting workers with score cards showing how they've fared on customer surveys. Representatives have been authorized to expedite requests in ways they couldn't previously. Many call requests are for forms regarding requested work. Call reps can now email these to customers where they previously could not, Daly said.
"The employees are tremendously engaged," he said, even though the workforce has not been increased. Time to answer calls is sharply down, well below the target of 79 seconds, and abandoned calls are less than 1 percent.
But not all customers are happy with the service.
"I think they're worse," said ratepayer Jamie Noonan of Massapequa, adding that she understands issues such as gas prices are beyond PSEG's control. Noonan said she's been trying to lower a bill that shot up to $650 for the two months ending in May, and that her interactions with PSEG have been frustrating. Explanations from PSEG phone reps about high natural gas costs sounded "scripted" and the promises of additional help have been slow in coming, she said.
"I think they're LIPA's evil twin. I really do," Noonan said.
Daly said PSEG is already working to address complaints about high bills. The company wasn't scheduled to take over power supply responsibilities from LIPA until January, but "at LIPA's request," PSEG is already working to address sharp bill increases that hounded customers this winter.
A group at PSEG is examining LIPA's fuel-hedging strategy to determine if changes will help dampen the spikes, Daly said. Hedging programs can help offset higher prices with contracts that lock in lower prices ahead of time, and options that provide returns if prices jump. PSEG is also looking at the way LIPA recoups fuel costs from customers, currently monthly with adjustments for undercollections, to see if that can be changed to dampen the peaks.
Daly said PSEG is reviewing the balanced billing program after a winter that saw increases to a program that's supposed to hold bills steady.
Too soon to rate PSEG
Public officials, including one who sponsored the LIPA reform act that brought about the changes, said it's too soon to give PSEG a grade for its performance.
"We all understand it takes time for an operation this size to accomplish all they need to, but it all seems to be in process," said Assemb. Robert Sweeney (D-Lindenhurst), sponsor of the bill. "One test will be if we have a significant storm, and then we'll find out just how good it is."
Sweeney said his only concern is whether there is enough oversight. The staffing of the Long Island Department of Public Service office has been "a bit slower than I'd like to see," he said.
"I'd like to see the office being active and aggressive in terms of holding hearings and making public reports and receiving information from the public," Sweeney said.
The office has named a new director in Julia Bovey, who takes over in July.
Assemb. Fred Thiele (I-Sag Harbor), who voted against the LIPA reform act, said that while he wasn't pleased with the way PSEG handled the cable project in East Hampton, the most significant question about how the utility will perform isn't yet fully known.
"The real test as to whether Long Island will feel better about their utility company is how they respond in a major storm," he said.
Daly said PSEG performed fine through eight winter storm events, adding that systems and procedures are in place to respond.