Sandy and the Utilities

Post-Sandy, New York City's regional utilities naturally have come under a lot of heat for their performance during and after the storm, which left lower Manhattan without lights for a week or ten days.

I, for one, thought that with so much ground-level and subterranean electrical equipment flooded for days, it might take months--not days or weeks--to get the lights back on. When it comes to telephones, in fact, Verizon reports that the landline network may not be back up and  running until May (with copper being replaced throughout with fiberoptics). New York City's MTA has asked the Federal government for $770 million to help restore the subway system's signalling system--notably to replace some 300,000 electro-mechanical relays, many of which date to the system's earliest days. How is it that the subways somehow are running, before that upgrade has been completed? Don't ask; don't tell.

I am not among those, in short, taking local authorities to task for post-storm performance, which appears to have generally been an exercise in brilliant improvisation. This is not to say, of course, that power restoration was without problems--or that there are no fundamental underlying problems in urgent need of attention.

The straight-line wind storm that swept the country from the Middle West to the Mid-Atlantic states last July--the night-time "derecho" that "put a new word [in] utility executives' vocabularies," as Rebecca Smith of the Wall Street Journal put it--already sounded an alarm about utilities' readiness to help each other in an emergency. During Sandy and its immediate aftermath, some 67,000 utility technicians and contractors were mobilized from all across the country to lend a hand in the Mid-Atlantic and northeastern states. Now, reports Smith, the utilities' nine regional utility emergency groups are reassessing their working arrangements to improve future performance. (Topics of discussion range from better mobile electronics to creation of equipment supply depots.)

Pre-storm preparedness is a big issue in its own right, needless to say, and it's not just a matter of emergency response. Did the utilities own the right basic equipment and was the equipment in the right places? Smith makes the important point that underground siting of power lines would not be a panacea even if it were generally affordable: Underground lines may be more vulnerable to flooding, which of course was the main problem in the hurricane cum nor'easter.

And what about basic management? It did not take New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo long to dismiss the leaders of the Long Island Power Authority, the U.S. utility American consumers most love to hate. it is taking New York's citizens somewhat longer to ask, oddly, why Cuomo had not already dismissed the executives, considering that LILCO is a state-owned utility. As for Consolidated Edison, Forbes magazine energy blogger William Pentland has drawn attention to an authoritative report that found, several years ago, its directors to have been derelict. What is more, reported Pentland, ConEd employees were found to have been implicated in kickback and money-laundering schemes that were expensed to the utility's customers, with directors showing a curious lack of curiosity about the shenanigans.


Note: An earlier version mistakenly spelled out New York's Con Ed as Commonwealth Edison. I regret the error.

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