Daley: Gas-electric workforce split could hurt LI during storms

National Grid linemen work on replacing poles in National Grid linemen work on replacing poles in Brookville in the wake of Superstorm Sandy. (Nov. 9, 2012) Photo Credit: Craig Ruttle

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In October and November, the 2,600 members of International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 1049, together with thousands of other emergency responders, worked tirelessly during a very dangerous time to get Long Islanders' power back on after Sandy. Will they be able to help our community get back on its feet after the next storm?

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has proposed privatizing the Long Island Power Authority, as recommended by the state Moreland Commission. Under the proposal, that private provider would be overseen by a newly empowered, tougher Public Service Commission.

"LIPA must be abolished," Cuomo demanded in his State of the State address in January, and the commission added that the electrical power grid and the structures that control it must undergo a fundamental redesign to improve performance and protect ratepayers.

But if the new model for delivering natural gas and electricity on Long Island is no longer a single employer, as it is now with National Grid, how will it compensate for lost synergy savings, and potentially halving the personnel trained and ready to respond to storms?

Unbeknownst to most Long Islanders, Cuomo has already approved an operating service agreement between LIPA and PSEG of New Jersey, which is scheduled to take control of Long Island's electric grid next year. That agreement could make up to half of the 3,000 National Grid workers no longer available for emergency storm response. National Grid declined a contract proposal to keep the workers available. New York is therefore splitting up the workforce that is trained and qualified to perform storm restoration.

These are the Local 1049 workers who respond to disasters like Sandy, but they will be sitting home during future emergencies.

In 1997, LIPA awarded a 15-year management services agreement to the newly formed KeySpan Energy Corp., for it to provide the technical management and labor necessary to maintain the transmission and distribution network. KeySpan also owned the natural gas system and power plants on Long Island. This was a good fit, because the workforce employed at these facilities is extensively cross-trained to perform emergency storm restoration. National Grid bought KeySpan in 2007.

But in late 2011, LIPA awarded the new contract for servicing its transmission and distribution system to PSEG. This company brings a well-deserved reputation for customer service, but there is one important question that must be answered: How will storm restoration improve when you are losing half of the current Long Island storm responders -- the National Grid workers who normally deal with gas but are trained to help restore electrical service in emergencies?

The next storm doesn't have to be as devastating as Sandy. If this decision is not revisited, Long Islanders could face long power outages from smaller storms. For generations, the fully cross-trained Local 1049 workforce has responded to restore service to Long Islanders.

With our current model, National Grid can call on thousands of local, experienced employees to respond to storm outages before seeking off-Island resources. If business is split, the cost associated with the loss of this synergy will be borne by an already burdened Long Island consumer, and gas employees may no longer be trained, or compelled, to respond to electrical outages.

The future structure of our electric transmission and distribution system is important to every Long Islander. Whether it is privatization, full municipalization or some combination of both, this issue needs to be scrutinized. Long Island ratepayers are entitled to full and open hearings before the decision is made.

Ratepayers, beware.

Don Daley is the business manager of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 1049, based in Hauppauge.

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