Nothing makes us feel more vulnerable than violent weather, particularly when it knocks out electrical power. Long outages, especially in the bitter cold, are dangerous and debilitating.
But widespread and long-term outages didn’t happen during this past week’s blizzard and single-digit deep freeze. They mostly haven’t happened since PSEG Long Island took over most operations of Long Island’s power system from the Long Island Power Authority in 2014. This success is worth noting, perhaps celebrating, even as PSEG must continue to make the system more durable and responsive.
For decades, Long Islanders withstood the double whammy of bad storms and a decrepit and mismanaged utility. Serious hits left hundreds of thousands of people without power. Even small storms left pockets of outages that could take days to resolve. LIPA was terrible at communicating when problems would be fixed, inciting anxiety and anger. And ratepayers endured maddening customer service and bills that were the highest in the continental United States.
It all came to a head when two storms crushed the grid in 13 months. In August 2011, Tropical Storm Irene left more than 520,000 customers without power. They were still furious, and politicians including Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo were already demanding change, when superstorm Sandy delivered a knockout punch in October 2012. It disrupted service for almost a million customers, about 90 percent of Long Island, and many had no power for more than a week.
It was no surprise that in 2013, LIPA received the poorest ratings in the two-decade history of the American Consumer Satisfaction Index, ranking last among 230 brands across 43 industries.
After Albany passed the LIPA Reform Act, PSEG took over on Jan. 1, 2014, with its earnings tightly tied to performance metrics. Four years later, it has mostly met them. Tree trimming has increased dramatically in frequency and quality. With the help of $725 million in federal Sandy relief money, PSEG continues to harden the system with stronger poles and lines, and by raising substations above ground level. Customer satisfaction has improved. And the bills, while still high compared with other utilities, thanks largely to taxes on power plants and the system’s financial debt, are no longer the highest in the region.
The storm last week dropped around a foot of snow across Long Island, and arctic cold followed. But outages totaled fewer than 25,000, and the average disruption was about 100 minutes. Customers had contact information to report outages easily by text, email or phone, and were kept updated about interruptions. There was no outcry about the power company, a silence that was conspicuous.
LIPA and PSEG officials say they are still improving the system, the service and the cost. The way forward includes paying down debt, creating the right power-generation mix and reducing LIPA’s property tax bills without devastating the communities that depend on those payments.
PSEG has yet to face down a Category 3 or worse hurricane, but a good performance so far after years of horrible ones is worth noting. PSEG is weathering the storm of Long Island’s power needs quite nicely. — The editorial board