For most Long Islanders, their electric utility only merits their attention in two situations: when the power bill comes in and when the lights go out, and the freezers and refrigerators, internet and televisions, medical equipment and air conditioners.
After Tropical Storm Isaias pummeled the region with heavy winds last month, hundreds of thousands of Long Islanders had to think about PSEG Long Island, the for-profit power company that operates LIPA’s publicly owned system. And what they experienced left them furious.
The communications and outage management system that has supposedly seen huge upgrades from a $30 million investment since superstorm Sandy hit in 2012 and PSEG took over operations from National Grid in 2014 failed. Inconvenienced customers who could not make contact were fuming, and residents dealing with live wires or powerless life-support equipment were endangered.
It also led PSEG to believe it needed fewer fixes than the 20,000 necessary repairs, leading the company to promise full restoration within days that took longer than a week to complete.
For PSEG and LIPA, the perfect scheme for enraging customers is:
Step 1: Overpromise on their ability to receive information on outages and then dropping the ball and the call when it matters.
Step 2: Overpromise on how quickly they can restore power and then underdelivering as customers swelter and food and medicines spoil.
Step 3: Appear disorganized throughout, with a nonsensical online outage map and employees either not showing up for residents, or showing up but not fixing problems because they are only there to “assess,” and then finally appearing at work sites in huge multi-truck gangs to do small jobs.
As the storm season continues, multiple hearings and investigations are underway on the county and state level. LIPA is promising accountability reports 30, 90 and 180 days after the storm.
PSEG, which gets paid about $60 million annually to operate the system and has earned nearly all of another $10 million-plus in incentives each year, agreed to divert 2020’s incentive cash to reimbursing customers for ruined food and medications, which is smart.
Calls for new ways to punish PSEG are understandable, but the existing contract can be canceled if PSEG has two big failures, and the company can be sued if it does not live up to its contract.
PSEG is supposed to run the system well, and be prepared to communicate with customers and restore power in emergencies. LIPA is supposed to make sure PSEG does so. Both failed in ways Tropical Storm Isaias highlighted, by not stress-testing systems well enough and by not overseeing telecommunications and information technology vendors.
There must be an improvement plan that includes regular public reports on rigorous testing of these systems, and demands staying on the issue even when skies are sunny. That’s the key to better performance in storms, which is required for PSEG to keep its contract, and LIPA leaders to keep their jobs.
— The editorial board