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OpinionColumnistsLane Filler

LIPA releases study on what went wrong during Isaias

A joint crew comprised of PSEG and contractors

A joint crew comprised of PSEG and contractors work on downed powerlines along Bread and Cheese Hollow Rd. in Fort Salonga on Aug. 6 after a tree knocked them down during Tropical Storm Isaias.  Credit: Newsday/Steve Pfost

This week, the Long Island Power Authority released its 30-day study of what went wrong with PSEG Long Island’s ability to communicate with customers after Tropical Storm Isaias, accurately predict restoration times, and then live up to those predictions. The report is nearly 50 pages, and will likely be dwarfed by the summaries of the 90-day and 180-day reports LIPA is promising, but a few things do stick out.

That includes more than a million calls dropped or unanswered, an estimated cost of $10 billion to bury all lines, and 67,000 Facebook followers who aren’t calling PSEG a friend.

  • More than a million (un)served: First, PSEG’s outage-reporting line was swamped, almost as soon as widespread outages started on Aug. 4, then the billing line was overwhelmed as customers with outages tried to get through any way they could. The upshot was at least 400,000 calls that could not go through or were dropped in the first 24 hours of the storm, 550,000 in the first three days, and more than 1 million overall.
  • Technology means more ways to fail: In addition to 1 million unanswered calls, at least 300,000 texts reporting outages did not go through. But the most thoroughly modern breakdown came in social media: The report says that while PSEG Long Island has 67,000 Facebook followers, 15,000 Twitter followers and 1,000 Instagram followers who can give and get outage and restoration information via the platforms, failures in the utility’s outage management system and estimated restoration time system made any meaningful communication, on social media or otherwise, largely impossible.
  • It’s going to cost how much? LIPA owns 15,000 miles of power lines, two-thirds of which was overhead pre-Sandy. About 10% of that has since been hardened, which generally means burying lines, thanks to a $730 million post-Sandy project of which the federal government paid 90%. After Tropical Storm Isaias, and after every big storm, people want to know why we can’t bury it all. LIPA’s report says burying 25% of the remaining overhead wires would cost $1.6 billion, take five to 11 years, and reduce the eight-day period of outages to 7.4 days. Burying 50% would cost $4.5 billion and reduce outage times from eight days to 6.9 days. And burying 100%? That would be $10 billion, take 35 to 69 years, and reduce the outages from eight days to 5.6 days.
  • Multiply trouble by 12!: PSEG has a "blue-sky rule of thumb" for how long it takes outages to be restored when there are no emergencies going on — two hours for one typical form of power failure and four hours for the other most-common problems.

The method it used in the first few days of predicting restoration times after Isaias was to multiply those times by 12 to estimate how long restoration would take. But since it took eight days, or approximately 192 hours, for many, that multiplier was way off. Now LIPA’s report recommends that in an outage situation this serious, with 20,000 repairs needed and 600,000 customers without power, no estimated restoration times should be quoted for 24 to 48 hours after the storm, since PSEG has no idea how long it will take until it has surveyed the actual damage.

Several investigations of the storm response are underway at the state and local levels, and some elected officials, Sen. James Gaughran in particular, demand the utility be placed under the direct oversight of the state’s Public Service Commission. Seen in that context, LIPA’s promised 90- and 180-day reports will be pointed as much toward convincing critics that the system can be improved without more oversight as they will be dedicated to explaining how those improvements are going to happen.