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Long Island's electric system improved after Sandy, but yet to be tested by big storm

PSEG president David Daly shows the newly elevated

PSEG president David Daly shows the newly elevated LIPA substation in Cedarhurst during a visit Oct. 24, 2014. The subtation has been fortified to protect it against Long Island's next big storm. Photo Credit: Newsday / Alejandra Villa

Superstorm Sandy's shock to the Long Island electric system set the stage for a broad array of grid reinforcements, procedural reforms and oversight that officials say have shored up a system badly in need of repair.

But only another major storm will truly tell whether nearly hundreds of millions of dollars in completed and pending fixes -- and a highly regarded new utility operator -- are enough to prevent a repeat dismal response.

The October 2012 storm initially knocked out power to more than 945,000 of LIPA's 1.1 million customers, a record number that was compounded by a subsequent nor'easter that pushed total outages to 1.1 million. LIPA incurred about $800 million in damage, replacing more than 4,000 poles, 2,100 transformers and 400 miles of wire, and repairing 44 substations. It took more than 14,000 workers just more than two weeks to fully restore power.

LIPA and its contractor at the time, National Grid, endured withering criticism for having antiquated computer systems and procedures, idle out-of-area work crews, failing to accurately tell customers when repairs would happen, and an inability to inspect flood-damaged homes.

"They have failed the consumers," Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said at the height of the two-week restoration.

That criticism helped Cuomo push through a LIPA reform bill that resulted in a bigger role for PSEG Long Island, which now manages the electric system, than was planned by LIPA's board of trustees. The major focus originally was storm preparedness and response.

Rolling out changes

In January, when PSEG took over, the new measures began with an increase in the amount of tree-trimming the utility planned to conduct -- to more than 2,500 miles a year from LIPA's prior 1,600. (PSEG this year was forced to scale back the plan for 2014 to 2,100 miles to divert about $7 million in funds to computer-system improvements.)

One of the biggest upgrades PSEG undertook and completed is a new $30 million storm outage management system, which replaced a LIPA-owned system managed by National Grid. The old system relied on paper maps and work orders, and an antiquated computer language.

PSEG's system puts laptops in the hands of several hundred field workers and managers, and can allow management of storms from as far away as PSEG's home base in New Jersey. Just last week, when PSEG experienced more than 30,000 outages during a wind and rainstorm, the system worked without a hitch, said David Daly, president of PSEG Long Island.

"The significant storm enhancements and implementation of industry-best process have been completed," Daly said last week. "If Sandy were to hit today . . . I think you'd see a significant improvement in the performance."

PSEG installed a new phone system that both automates and better directs calls, and allows hundreds of workers to remotely field calls. It has beefed up social media response to communicate with customers, and set up a new plan for communicating with municipalities before and during the restoration.

But much work remains

In addition to $700 million the federal government paid LIPA in reimbursements for repairs immediately after the storm, LIPA received $729 million more to harden the system against future storms.

PSEG has been setting priorities for spending that money, with work starting next year and continuing over three years.

The work entails raising and fortifying substations (regional outposts that step-down high-voltage power from plants to lower voltages used in homes and business), beefing up high-voltage transmission lines and neighborhood distribution lines, and "sectionalizing" electric circuits to further isolate events that cause outages so that fewer customers are affected.

As much as it has fortified and modernized equipment, PSEG has added new rigor to procedures around storms, Daly said. The new computer system will help PSEG manage the sometimes large work forces that amass during restoration, and make sure they stay productive. New procedures are in place to ensure they all have places to stay.

Fine-tuning storm response

PSEG's storm response plan, after some early criticism, includes new procedures that put PSEG in control over whether homes damaged by flooding can be re-energized after an outage. This was a source of conflict and contention between LIPA and municipalities after Sandy.

Daly said PSEG has plans in place to hire outside contractors to help in the effort, should a storm require it. Municipalities will have the right to play a role in inspections, but it's not required. Customers would be responsible for repairing damage to electrical systems in their homes. Hempstead Town worked with PSEG to make sure the utility had primary responsibility for restorations.

"I think they're on a much more solid footing" than LIPA was after Sandy, said Kate Murray, supervisor of Hempstead Town, which passed legislation giving PSEG unilateral authority in inspecting buildings and restoring power after an outage. "I am very gratified that PSEG did listen to the changes we felt strongly about and incorporated them."

LIPA chairman Ralph Suozzi said by all indications Long Islanders will fare much better under PSEG.

"I think we're a lot better off than we were," he said. "We've moved away from a performance that was I think below par," though he cautioned, "You really don't know until the event happens."

The LIPA reform bill also established an office of the state Department of Public Service on Long Island, which is charged with ensuring PSEG has a strong emergency response plan and performs according to plan.

"We're here to make sure Long Island is ready for a storm in a way that was not possible before, including making sure PSEG has a robust emergency plan," said Julia Bovey, director of the office. She called Sandy LIPA's "Sputnik moment."

If there are complaints about PSEG's response, the Department of Public Service will field them. While the agency has only "review and recommend" authority over LIPA and PSEG, the office will make sure Long Islanders get the same level of emergency-response oversight as do customers of other regulated utilities, if not better, Bovey said. "Given the vulnerability of the Island, they should have more," she said.

Her review thus far, she said, finds a "much more robust" outage-management system than LIPA ever had. "We've been watching their preparation, and how they react to the smaller ones will help determine how they respond to the larger ones," Bovey said.

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