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Analysis: PSE&G tops LIPA in outage repairs

Tom Oldewurtel and Amy Paynton of Seaside Heights

Tom Oldewurtel and Amy Paynton of Seaside Heights survey the destruction on Harding Ave. in Ortley Beach, N.J. (Oct. 31, 2012) Credit: AP

PSE&G, the utility unit of the New Jersey conglomerate set to take over the Long Island electric grid in 2014, restored twice the number of outages during Sandy for about a quarter of what LIPA spent to bring back power, a Newsday analysis shows.

PSE&G said it made 2.1 million electric-service restorations in the days after the Oct. 29 storm, compared with LIPA's 1.1 million. Yet the New Jersey company restored power to most of its customers four days faster with about half the number of workers.

It took National Grid, the London-based company that operates the Long Island grid under contract to the Long Island Power Authority, until Nov. 14 to reduce the number of outages to just under 8,000, according to LIPA, which has a total of 1.1 million customers. LIPA said the storm restoration work was essentially finished at 8 a.m. on Nov. 14, and that 7,000-plus outages that occurred later that day were "new."

PSE&G, with 2.2 million customers, had restored service to all but 7,000 of them by Nov. 10 -- and had reduced the number to fewer than 500 by the night of Nov. 11, according to the analysis. Both the Long Island and New Jersey utilities experienced more than 100,000 outages when a nor'easter slammed the area in the midst of the Sandy restoration effort, in some cases knocking out power to those whose power had just been restored.

Workers added

PSE&G said it had 4,700 linemen and tree trimmers working at the height of the restoration. LIPA had a total of 10,496 linemen and tree trimmers by Nov. 10, as part of a total operations workforce that it said exceeded 14,000.

PSE&G last week estimated the cost of responding to Sandy between $250 million and $300 million, compared with LIPA's estimated $950 million. PSE&G replaced some 2,400 utility poles during the storm, compared with LIPA's estimated 4,225.

Because PSE&G is a private utility, its storm expenses generally aren't reimbursable by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. LIPA, a public authority, expects from 75 percent to 100 percent of its restoration expenses to be covered.

Michael Hervey, the departing chief operating officer of LIPA, said the breadth and complexity of restoring power on Long Island partly explained the differences between the two utilities. For example, he said, LIPA had more than 40,000 damage locations requiring crews, compared with fewer than half that amount for Tropical Storm Irene. PSE&G, however, said it had more than 60,000 such locations.

"I would say it's probably among the most complex that any utility has ever dealt with," Hervey said.

Homegrown challenges

But some of the complexity was home grown.

Hervey has acknowledged that the size of the workforce challenged LIPA and National Grid's ability to assign work, as well as to house and manage so many workers. Much of the work of logging outages and restoration progress was done on paper instead of computers. Outside crews were handed paper work tickets and maps, rather than mobile devices and laptops that would have given LIPA a better idea of where crews were and how they were progressing.

"We just kept bringing on people to shorten the restoration time," Hervey said, a monumental task in itself given that LIPA's previous storm plans maxed out at 3,000 out-of-state workers.

One source familiar with LIPA's restoration efforts said the utility was under a standing order from officials in Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's office not to turn away workers, including some flown in from as far away as California, as the effort lingered. Cuomo spokesman Richard Azzopardi said, "It was always LIPA/National Grid's decision to continue, or to stop recruiting and receiving line workers and tree trimmers."

PSE&G is a division of Public Service Enterprise Group, whose PSEG Long Island will take over from National Grid in January 2014. It has received high marks for customer satisfaction.

After dropping to 10th place from third on J.D. Power and Associates' residential utility ranking between 2010 and 2011, PSE&G returned to third place again this year. LIPA has continually ranked at or near the bottom of the survey, and was last among eastern U.S. utilities in 2012.

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