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State PSC critical of utilities' response to 2018 storms, identifies 43 potential violations

Eileen Buckley
WBFO News File Photo

The New York State Public Service Commission says it has started an enforcement action against several utilities in the state because of the way they dealt with major storms last year.

The PSC says its staff looked into the preparation and response of the state’s major utilities to five major storms in 2018, where each one of those storms left more than 100,000 customers without power. As a result, the PSC says the utilities’ shareholders could face possible storm related financial penalties.

Among the storms was a windstorm that did some damage in the Western New York and Rochester areas in early April 2018. PSC staff identified 43 potential violations where the utilities’ Emergency Response Plans were not followed. New York State Electric and Gas, Orange and Rockland Utilities and Con Edison were allegedly the poorest performers.

“When storms knock out power, it is the job of utilities to restore electricity to customers in a timely and safe manner,” Commission Chair John Rhodes said. “Utilities are responsible for pre-storm preparation and the implementation of restoration efforts after a storm to assure safe and adequate electric service to the public."

Rhodes noted the "increased frequency of severe weather events" that have impacted utility infrastructure.

"It is mission-critical that our utilities are adequately prepared to meet and address these new realities and respond appropriately, including concretely improving plans and practices with each cycle," he said. "When a utility fails to meet its responsibilities and commitments, they must and will be held accountable.”

The commission issued an order to NYSEG, National Grid, Rochester Gas & Electric, O&R and Central Hudson Gas & Electric directing them to respond to the PSC investigation of their response to the storms last year.

NYSEG and RG&E are both part of AVANGRID and a spokesperson says they don’t comment on active litigation.

The PSC notes that its finding of poor performance by NYSEG and RG&E follows a previous investigation of the company’s response to the 2017 March windstorm that found similar failures, and the commission is looking for a court order that would mandate improvements to emergency preparedness.

In a separate decision, the PSC has adopted the terms of a settlement related to that windstorm, requiring the utilities to pay $3.9 million from shareholder funds. The money will be used for things like greater resilience in the electric system and enhanced storm response capabilities.

NYSEG and RG&E President and CEO Carl Taylor  issued a statement in connection with the settlement over the 2017 windstorm, which said in part:

Credit Alissa Orlando / WXXI News File Photo
WXXI News File Photo
The wind damage was felt into the Rochester area.

“In the aftermath of the March 2017 windstorm, NYSEG and RG&E thoroughly reviewed our processes, listened to customers and municipal leaders, and developed ways to enhance service to better serve our communities. We also worked collaboratively with the Department of Public Service staff and other parties to reach a settlement that is in the best interest of our customers and communities, as they focus on new investments to increase system resiliency, strengthening our grid, and improving communications with customers in the areas that were impacted by the windstorm. We are pleased that the Public Service Commission has approved the joint proposals and look forward to continuing to build a more resilient energy infrastructure that serves New York State.”

National Grid issued this response in connection with the criticism of the handling of the 2018 storms:

"National Grid has a comprehensive emergency response plan and our employees are well trained in their respective roles – all with the goal of restoring service to customers as quickly and as safely as possible when severe weather impacts our system. That plan includes consistent customer outreach, and coordinating and partnering with public safety officials, emergency responders, and state, county and local government officials. It also includes a comprehensive post-storm review so that we can further incorporate best practices and lessons learned. 

"More than 90 percent of the 725,000 customers impacted by the five 2018 storms reviewed by the PSC had their service restored in less than 48 hours. Our performance has been positively recognized by our customers, municipalities, elected officials, and other key stakeholders. We look forward to reviewing today’s order and will respond to the Commission within the required timeframe. As always, we are open to further improving our storm responsiveness."

Randy Gorbman is WXXI's Director of News and Public Affairs. Randy manages the day-to-day operations of WXXI News on radio, television, and online.
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