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LIPA, PSEG-LI have work to do

PSEG crews on Brunswick Road in Lake Ronkonkoma

PSEG crews on Brunswick Road in Lake Ronkonkoma on Sunday, Aug. 9, 2020, as they work on restoring power to the area. Credit: James Carbone

On Aug. 4, Long Island was struck by a tropical storm, Isaias, that brought 70-mph winds and 646,000 power outages. In the aftermath, PSEG-Long Island was overwhelmed.

The utility’s communications system could not handle the calls, texts and emails flooding in from customers who lost power. And its outage management system crashed under the high volume of complaints, repairs and power restorations.

Three months later, if a blizzard or Nor’easter hit, the communications and outage management systems would again fail. And this time, with freezing temperatures likely, that failure could be fatal.

Emails exposed as part of a post-storm investigation revealed that PSEG-LI knew these systems were failing before Isaias, and after, and did little to fix them.

And LIPA has failed to make sure Long Islanders would get the service they need, the primary task justifying its existence.

It’s now clear that New Jersey-based PSEG has given increasingly short shrift to its Long Island operation. The management structure grants little autonomy or authority to the Long Island branch, and the company’s top leaders seem to place little import on how it performs for its more than 1 million Long Island customers.

Those customers pay rates among the highest in the country, that include about $59 million a year for PSEG’s contract and another $10 million a year in performance bonuses, paid out year after year for management of an operation that only appeared to be acceptable because it was never properly tested by managers or stressed by severe weather.

Whether delivered under the name LILCO, LIPA, Keyspan, National Grid or PSEG, electrical service on Long Island has been frequently disappointing and occasionally disastrous for decades. Saddled with $7 billion in debt from the nuclear power plant in Shoreham that never opened, created when a disastrous deal bailed out LILCO’s shareholders via the pockets of Long Island ratepayers, LIPA has lurched from model to model amid crisis after crisis.

Wednesday, LIPA’s board approved more than 100 improvement demands for PSEG. Since Isaias, PSEG has been all contrition and remorse, promising to listen, learn, grow and improve.

But there has been no improvement, and it’s not clear the structure of the company can improve.

PSEG’s contract runs through 2025 and LIPA can break it if the company keeps failing to provide good service, but doing so creates new challenges. And now the long-standing demands for a LIPA board elected by the public and full municipalization, a very expensive prospect that doesn’t guarantee improvement, will be renewed. That’s worth considering, but it’s likely not the answer, because making the workforce more expensive would be an unbearable burden for ratepayers. In the next Albany legislative session, a proposal for more regulatory oversight of PSEG and LIPA will be debated. Perhaps other utilities that already have such oversight should be considered to provide power to Long Island.

But for now we have LIPA and PSEG-LI. They need to execute a full turnaround quickly, or face stiff consequences.

— The editorial board