PSEG Long Island has implemented a safety procedure aimed at reducing worker fatalities that has also increased customer outages by around 5 percent a year, senior utility officials said.
The new measure, enacted in June, temporarily disables equipment that allows the electric grid to automatically restore power when an electrical problem occurs on a section of line. It keeps power off longer along these circuits to make sure workers are clear of any danger. Once it’s determined workers are safe, employees can reset equipment to restore power.
Between June 1 and Dec. 31, 2015, the practice led to 27 “avoidable” outages affecting 43,500 customers lasting more than five minutes, according to the senior PSEG officials, who defended the practice.
PSEG implemented the practice to “minimize the risk of serious injury or fatality to our employees,” said vice president John O’Connell. That reduced risk “more than offsets the slight impact to reliability,” he said.
PSEG officials acknowledge that because these outages can be quickly fixed, the new practice has allowed the company to reduce the overall average duration time of outages that it reports to LIPA. PSEG officials emphasized that they achieved the metrics even with the new measures in place.
PSEG receives an annual fixed management fee of $58 million, and 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.
Between Jan. 1 and March 31, the new policy reduced power restoration times by about 5 minutes, a 7 percent improvement over the 65 minutes it would have taken without the new policy.
Several PSEG employees say company managers have occasionally used the process to help boost restoration times, one of the most closely watched measures of the company’s performance under the LIPA contract.
“They have a short-duration outage and it makes their numbers look better,” said one employee, adding that the measures are sometimes left in place even when there is no repair or upgrade work taking place. Two other workers said they had experienced similar scenarios, though one said the practice could be “inadvertent.”
PSEG officials denied that managers in any way manipulate the system, saying that any benefit to restoration times is not the intended purpose. In addition, they said, using the new safety measures to reduce outage durations can hurt other performance metrics for which PSEG receives extra compensation.
“PSEG Long Island has very high standards of integrity in operating the system and in the reporting of our metrics,” spokesman Jeff Weir said.
The new protocol is enacted when employees are at work repairing or upgrading parts of the aging LIPA electric system. Under normal system operation, devices called reclosers automatically reset the system and restore power when there’s a problem on a line. With the reclosers off, the new protocol will cause the system to “lock out,” and not attempt to automatically restore power, requiring system operators to get clearance to do so. That can take just minutes. Outages that would otherwise be more isolated can affect a larger number of customers, even into the thousands, under the new measure.
Because many problems are caused by temporary events such as swaying branches or squirrels causing shorts on electric lines, automatic resetting equipment helps to quickly repair temporary outages, often without worker intervention.
LIPA spokesman Sid Nathan in a statement said LIPA audited PSEG’s performance metrics “and we also supported the enhancement to their worker safety program.”
LIPA trustee Matthew Cordaro said he didn’t consider the restoration improvement times significant, but he believed the board should have been informed of its impact on metrics.
“I would have liked to be involved in discussions about this before it became a topic in the newspaper,” he said, noting LIPA briefed board members about the issue after Newsday began asking questions about it in April.
One senior PSEG official, asserting that about half the utilities in the country follow the safety practice, known as a non-recloser assurance policy, say there’s no question about its effectiveness.
“We know it hurts reliability and customer satisfaction, but we’re willing to do it because it saves lives,” said the official. “It’s the difference between life and death” for a worker.
But one of the employees asserted safety has “nothing to do with it,” noting workers treat all power lines as if they’re live.
Last year, PSEG had a target of restoring power in at least 85 minutes. In actuality, the company was able to reduce that time to 78.5 minutes. The new policy, which was in effect for six months on 2015, brought down the average by 2.3 minutes, officials said.
One employee said managers who control when the system is re-energized can time to the second when power is restored in non-reclosed outages. Outages of five minutes or more count toward the metric, so an outage lasting, say 5.3 minutes can sharply bring down the average, particularly when actual problems on the system can last an average 78 minutes.
But the PSEG officials noted that the increase in the total number of outages negatively affected two other measures of the company’s performance, including one that could ultimately cause PSEG to lose all its incentive pay.
“There’s absolutely no incentive” to manipulate the numbers, the official said. “It hurts us every time. It’s the metric for which we have a sledgehammer penalty” if it is not met.
This month, LIPA filed a report with the state Department of Public Service on the performance targets. LIPA said PSEG earned $5.2 million in incentive pay in 2015. But the company missed two metrics for worker safety during the year, and thus wasn’t eligible for a total $5.7 million it could have earned. PSEG, according to the report, believes it should receive the full $5.7 million.
Even though PSEG missed metrics on worker safety in 2015, LIPA earlier this year agreed to change the metrics for worker safety to make it easier for PSEG to achieve them.
Department of Public Service Long Island director Julia Bovey said while a reporter’s call was the first she’d heard of the new non-recloser policy, she said it was not the sort of detail she would expect the utility to seek approval to change.
She called the policy “common practice by utilities in New York to keep workers safe,” and added, “Given the fact that PSEG’s reliability performance is among the best in the state, there is nothing to be concerned about.”