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Future LIPA operator eyes new outage tracking system

The Long Island Power Authority, just months away from replacing an antiquated computer system to track and report customer outages during storms, may change course and install an entirely new one on the recommendation of its future operator, PSEG.

Officials said the prospect of changing gears this late is based solely on the desire to have the best system in place for the coming storm season, and they said they don't expect delays in implementing it.

Work on the previously planned new system, called Prism, is continuing even as PSEG studies which is best.

"We're working on both fronts," said LIPA chairman Larry Waldman. "We have an opportunity to evaluate both systems. We think it's a wise thing to do."

Waldman said the authority hopes PSEG will have the evaluation done by month's end. Asked if changing course could delay implementation of a new system, he said, "I absolutely hope not."

It's unclear how the launch of either system could be affected by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's plan to sell off the LIPA assets to a private company, particularly if that company is not PSEG or National Grid. A new owner could propose an entirely new system.

Karen Johnson, a spokeswoman for Public Service Enterprise Group, which will take over the LIPA system next year under a $3.8 billion 10-year contract, declined to comment.

LIPA's old outage system, still in use, was considered "one of the biggest shortcomings" of its response to Tropical Storm Irene in 2011, according to a study commissioned by the state Public Service Commission. The system runs on the obsolete COBOL programming language, uses paper maps and requires intensive data entry at day's end. It failed during Irene when it could not provide restoration times as outages mounted. During superstorm Sandy, it listed more outages in some villages than there were actual residents, and it was taken down by the utility for days.

The Moreland Commission, the state body empaneled by Cuomo after utility failures during Sandy, described the system as "archaic," and said it "lacks the ability to manage large-scale outages and is not a platform that can take advantage of the current advances in technology."

In August 2011, LIPA announced it had reached agreement with a company called Efacec Advanced Control Systems of Georgia to implement a new system called Prism. It was due to be in place for this year's storm season, which starts in June, or sooner.

Efacec said it continues to work on the LIPA contract. Efacec's contract with LIPA, said by one source to be valued at from $6 million to $10 million, "has not been canceled," according to Efacec marketing manager Rob Sadler. "LIPA's project team is in fact currently performing acceptance testing on the Prism [outage management system] at their facilities." He referred all other questions to LIPA.

LIPA spokesman Mark Gross declined to comment on the contract, saying, "We will do whatever is in the best interest of our customers operationally and financially."

National Grid, which hosts the current system, declined to comment.

PSEG, which is currently working for LIPA under a $15 million contract to transition its services from National Grid, is offering a new system that it has used successfully for years, LIPA trustees have been told.

"It's all about, how do we get the best software?" said one LIPA trustee who requested anonymity. "If they [PSEG] think a different way to go is better, we should be listening to them."

A person familiar with the Efacec implementation said much of the work to date has involved converting the old system's paper maps to digital versions -- work that could also serve PSEG's system.

It's unclear how much LIPA has spent to date on the Efacec system. Kate Gurnett, a spokeswoman for state comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, who approves LIPA contracts, said the office has no record of a contract approval for Efacec.

During Sandy, PSEG was forced to shut down one automated system that incorrectly told customers their power had been restored, even though many remained without power. Young, the PSEG spokeswoman, said the service wasn't part of its outage management system. "Given the type of infrastructure damage from Sandy, we made a decision to temporarily suspend an automated outbound customer message to avoid customer confusion," she said in an email.

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