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PSEG safety procedure causes customers to see spike in outages

In November, PSEG debuted a new online map

In November, PSEG debuted a new online map that provides details about the causes and impending repairs of outages. Credit: PSEG Long Island

Electric-system outages for LIPA customers spiked to a five-year high during the first 10 months of 2016 as PSEG Long Island faced an increase in storms, errors in its new computer system and the impact of a safety procedure.

Through October of this year, PSEG reported 267,827 customer outages caused by 3,640 outage events, or jobs needing repair. That’s a 37 percent increase over 2015, and a 9 percent jump from the next-highest year, 2012, when there were 244,948 customer outages.

PSEG at a recent LIPA board committee meeting blamed an increase in small- to medium-size storms, which the utility said numbered 20 through the end of October. That’s the highest since 2011, when there were also 20 storm events, but which saw far fewer outages at 214,040.

PSEG also cited the impact of a new safety procedure for its workers, saying it increased the frequency of outages by 8.6 percent. But the procedure has also benefited PSEG by reducing the reported duration of outages, one of the measures for which PSEG receives incentive payments from LIPA. The outages would not have occurred or would not have been more than momentary had the new procedures not been in place.

PSEG receives an fixed annual management fee of $58 million, and it can earn an extra $8.7 million this year if it meets or exceeds a list of performance measures, which include customer satisfaction, worker safety and power restoration. In September, PSEG officials said they expected to fall short of the outage duration and frequency measures for 2016.

At the same time, PSEG last month said it had discovered separate problems with the newly implemented outage-management computer system that led to double counting of some outages. PSEG and an outside consultant found the company overreported about 35,000 outages through the first eight months of 2016, and may find an equal amount for the rest of the year, PSEG vice president John O’Connell said.

Correction of the numbers could help put PSEG back on track to meeting its outage targets and receiving the full $8.7 million in incentive payments this year, though officials were uncertain of that at November’s end. Incorrect counts of outages due to system bugs add 5 to 7 percentage points to outage totals.

PSEG’s outage targets are based on a formula that examines the number of outages per LIPA’s 1.1 million customers. PSEG’s target for the year is 0.77; as of the end of October, the figure was 0.94.

LIPA said it “has and will continue to independently review and audit this metric and these outages as we do all PSEG compensation metrics,” for accuracy.

O’Connell said it wasn’t certain whether the review of outages would help the utility get its numbers in line to earn the extra pay.

Newsday earlier this year reported that the safety procedures were begun by PSEG in June 2015 in line with other state utilities and that of its sister utility, PSE&G of New Jersey. While it is designed to boost worker safety, the procedure also helped the utility improve at least one of its operating performance metrics by cutting the time it took to restore outages.

The reason is that the procedure turns off equipment that allows the system to automatically restore power when there’s a problem on an electric line. Automatic resetting gets customers back in service quickly. But when technicians are working on a line, PSEG turns off the automatic resetting equipment to avoid the equipment resetting when a worker could be exposed to high voltage.

Several employees told Newsday earlier this year that the procedure could be manipulated by managers to reduce PSEG’s overall outage duration by allowing otherwise short-term outages to go just beyond five minutes, the minimum threshold for outages to be counted. The five-minute outages can pull down the overall outage time average.

PSEG denied managers intentionally manipulated the system. The utility operator and LIPA interviewed employees, including one who sent an email outlining the process internally, and concluded their review in November without any finding of manipulation.

LIPA said reported outages using the procedure were tied to “faults on the system” and found “no evidence of irregularities or manipulation around the restoration of those faults.”

For the year through October, PSEG fell short of a year-to-date target for the average number of outages per customer, at 0.94 compared with a target of 0.77. The average time a customer was without power was also off, at 65.8 minutes, compared with a year-to-date target of 57.1 minutes.

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