Local officials are hailing a local utility’s acknowledgement that it didn’t adequately plan for the two nor’easters that blasted the region in March 2018, knocking out power to thousands.
They are also happy that the state has just announced a $10.5 million settlement—the largest of its kind—with New York State Electric & Gas and Rochester Gas & Electric, both subsidiaries of AVANGRID Inc., a sustainable energy company with $32 billion in assets and operations in 24 states.
But they don’t intend to stop holding NYSEG’s feet to the fire, says Somers Supervisor Rick Morrissey. And they are hoping that the settlement money doesn’t get “consumed by the bureaucracy,” according to North Salem Supervisor Warren J. Lucas.
In 2019, local utilities were slammed by the state’s Public Service Commission for inadequately preparing for the storms.
An investigation by the state’s Department of Public Service determined that every major electric utility company in the state fell short, but the worst of the lot were NYSEG, which serves northern Westchester towns such as Somers and North Salem and
Putnam County, and Consolidated Edison, which serves Westchester.
It also found that Orange & Rockland Utilities and upstate’s Rochester Gas & Electric had not complied with state-mandated emergency response plans.
NYSEG subsequently acknowledged committing 18 violations; RG&E admitted to three. They were slammed with $10.5 million in fines: $9 million for NYSEG and $1.5 million for RG&E.
The settlement was announced just days before Christmas by Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
“It is beyond unacceptable to leave hundreds of thousands of customers in the dark for as long as these utilities did last year,” he said.
Some folks were left shivering in the cold for a week.
The size of the settlement makes it “crystal clear” that utilities have an obligation to prepare for severe weather and to “develop robust storm response programs,” said the governor, adding that, if they don’t, they will be held accountable and forced to change “how they do business.”
Lucas acknowledged Thursday, Jan. 2, that NYSEG appears to be making an effort to mend its ways.
“Over the past year we have seen that NYSEG has in fact invested in technology in our town, something it has not done for many years,” he said.
That doesn’t mean that customers can relax.
“The work is still ongoing and more needs to be done to improve the performance of the network in our town,” Lucas said.
The supervisor worried that the millions won’t directly benefit the utility’s customers.
“While there have been many arguments to the contrary, at the end of the day, any money taken from NYSEG comes from its ratepayers. I doubt we will see it directly supporting our homeowners. It will likely get consumed by the bureaucracy,” he said.
Somers isn’t backing down, either.
The town had filed a formal complaint with the PSC months before the 2018 storm that knocked out power to a whopping 95 percent of its residents.
After the storms, it filed more complaints. Morrissey said he and Lucas both testified before the state Senate about the “lack of NYSEG’s response to the massive outage that lasted eight days.”
Somers continued to fight to hold NYSEG accountable and to ensure that resources were being focused on upgrading the electrical infrastructure, Morrissey said.
It created a Utility Task Force Committee that routinely meets with NYSEG executives and their field engineers to discuss ongoing and future projects “as well as more closely prepare for storm responses.”
The utility has upped its tree-cutting program, installed re-closure units that limit the scope of outages and has stationed a fleet of work vehicles within the town.
“While all this is laudable, it still remains to be seen whether all of this work can make up for years of NYSEG's lack of investment in their infrastructure,” Morrissey said.
The town will, he promised, “continue to pressure NYSEG.”
“This most recent PSC finding and fines against NYSEG will only matter to town residents if their power remains dependable and benefits for their past hardships are realized.”
According to Cuomo, a consent order will be filed with the Supreme Court to settle enforcement litigation.
It will require the following:
• In the near term, NYSEG will hire and maintain 20 additional employees with storm restoration responsibilities. Additionally, PSC staff and NYSEG will review long-term staffing needs and requirements;
• NYSEG will maintain at least 175 damage assessment-trained employees, excluding employees who perform restoration work during an emergency event;
• NYSEG and RG&E's Emergency Response Organization will form a group to develop a Storm Response Exercise program to include in-the-field activities and non-tabletop storm response exercises, including testing their enhanced life-support equipment customer contact and tracking procedures, as well as communication and coordination with municipal and county governments;
• NYSEG agrees to retain a third-party consultant, subject to consultation with commission staff, to audit and assess the companies' storm response training and training exercise programs and NYSEG agrees that shareholders will bear any incremental costs for the term of engagement for the consultant.
“The primary task of a utility is to supply safe and adequate electricity to customers,” said Department of Public Service CEO John B. Rhodes.
“A key component of that is for the utility to be prepared for a storm and to restore power as safely and as quickly as possible, and we will hold them accountable to do just that."
According to a statement Friday, Jan. 3, by manager of corporate communications Michael Jamison, NYSEG has taken a number of steps since the 2018 storms.
“We have thoroughly reviewed our processes, identified best practices, listened to our customers, federal and state officials and municipal leaders, and implemented enhanced emergency response procedures,” it read.
The $10.5 million in settlement money will come from shareholder funds and be used to “benefit customers,” NYSEG said.
Exactly how those funds will be used will be determined in a separate settlement process that will require the state PSC’s approval.
Because “challenging weather conditions are increasing in both severity and duration,” both companies are developing a comprehensive “resiliency plan.” It includes replacing poles, cutting down trees endangering power lines and upgrading distribution circuits.
“NYSEG and RG&E are deeply committed to providing safe, affordable and reliable energy for New Yorkers now and well into the future,” Jamison said.
Lewisboro Supervisor Peter H. Parsons said Thursday, Jan. 2, that NYSEG has been doing more tree cutting and is installing switches.
The utility is pushing for meters on individual homes and businesses that would automatically report power outages to the utilities.
“They aren’t being allowed to by the PSC,” Parsons claimed, noting that both adults in a household work nowadays and it’s not likely anyone would be home to call in.
“It’s an absolute necessity,” he said.
Parsons and Adam Ochs, chair of the town’s Emergency Management Committee, are planning to meet with NYSEG representatives soon.
State Assemblyman David Buchwald, whose District 93 includes Lewisboro and North Salem, called the settlement “fitting.”
“NYSEG customers suffered extended power outages because their utility failed to take ownership of its responsibility to be ready for major storms,” he said.
“Nearly two years have passed since many of our neighbors were forced to live over a week without power. While we were fortunate many good Samaritans and benevolent businesses stepped up to volunteer and help our community, one thing is for certain—the management at these utility companies were utterly unprepared,” said Assemblyman Kevin Byrne, whose 94th District includes Mahopac and Yorktown.
“It is fitting that NYSEG shareholders will now pay the largest settlement in New York State history for failing to follow its own emergency response plan.”
Newly minted Yorktown Supervisor Matt Slater, who was then serving as chief of staff to state Sen. Terrence Murphy, attended multiple forums on the inadequate storm response.
“Yorktown was the epicenter of disaster during Winter Storms Quinn and Riley," said Slater. "Utility companies failed to properly communicate to customers and government officials. Considering our energy rates are the second highest in the nation, and rising, more must be done to hold the utility companies accountable to ratepayers. We should be getting more for what we pay, starting with adequate storm response.”
Buchwald, along with Westchester County Executive George Latimer, founded and cochaired United Westchester in response to the weather disaster.
In 2018, the coalition of county, state and federal officials released a 49-page report on the storm response.
Better communications was one of its top recommendations.
However, nothing by itself is a “silver bullet,” Latimer said then.
“We need a series of intelligent things to occur for this to work. Most importantly, for this system to work, the utilities and the local governments need to work hand in glove.”