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No lights: Who gets the blame?

A PSEG crew on Pulaski Road in Huntington

A PSEG crew on Pulaski Road in Huntington Station repairs damage after Tropical Storm Isaias in August 2020. Credit: James Carbone

Most Long Islanders don’t care who is in charge of supplying their electricity. Few are die-hard fans or opponents of municipal power or for-profit power or hybrid models.

They want the lights to come on when they flick the switch. They want to be able to afford their bill and report trouble when it happens. They want to be told when their power will be restored when a storm knocks it out.

And they aren’t interested in a debate between LIPA and PSEG about who failed them. They just want the excuses to stop so they can be warm in blizzards and cool in hurricanes and not in a panic when a tropical storm warning goes into effect.

In only three weeks, it will be one year since Isaias, which was the first major test for LIPA since 2012’s Superstorm Sandy and the first for PSEG Long Island since it began operating the system in 2014. PSEG took over after National Grid's epic Sandy meltdown.

And again, both LIPA and its contracted manager blew it.

PSEG didn't have tested and working computer and phone systems, and company emails show it knew of these problems before Isaias hit. The communications breakdown did not cause the 650,000 outages on Long Island, but it did create massive frustration and confusion among customers who could not get through to the utility. Worse, the confusion lengthened restoration times, causing undue hardship.

LIPA failed to oversee PSEG, very nearly its only job. It took at face value the company’s rosy assurances that it was ready for a big storm, and by neglecting to verify, left residents in a nasty lurch.

Now, we are told, LIPA and PSEG will continue to provide our power, but it will be better!

PSEG is reimbursing $30 million to LIPA, has lost its right to automatically extend the contract beyond 2025, and faces more rigorous performance standards. And most of its $78 million annual compensation is now subject to reductions for nonperformance. Previously, only $10 million was.

Is it enough? Those involved in the outcome say it was the only possible play right now. Full municipal control has almost no real support from elected officials. And the idea that another operator could come in with no lead time and run the system better than a PSEG motivated by newly harsh payment rules wasn’t convincing.

There’s no guarantee the "improved" deal will provide better and more responsive service, but it is at least clear now whom to blame for future failures. It appears the decision to forgo municipalization and proposals from new providers was made by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, just as he was architect of the post-Sandy reforms that created the current model.

But knowing whom to scapegoat will be cold comfort if Long Islanders again find themselves without power amid a steamy summer.

MEMBERS OF THE EDITORIAL BOARD are experienced journalists who offer reasoned opinions, based on facts, to encourage informed debate about the issues facing our community.