Con Ed mishandling of Sandy response drew CEO’s ire, says Cuomo-appointed commission

 

Among the New Yorkers frustrated with Con Ed’s performance after Hurricane Sandy struck on Oct. 30 was company CEO Kevin Burke, who expressed “ire” at a key aspect of the recovery effort, a state commission studying utility companies’ storm response said on Sunday.

Con Ed was so overwhelmed in dealing with the initial catastrophe, some workers assigned to assess storm damage instead ended up babysitting downed wires, said Gov. Cuomo’s Moreland Commission on utilities’ response to Sandy. Assigning damage assessment workers to wire-sitting jobs delayed Con Ed’s ability to figure out what work needed to be done — and had the potential to slow the restoration of service to some customers.

Burke’s ire was drawn by an Oct. 31 e-mailed report on the workers’ reassignments, the Moreland Commission reported, without divulging the e-mail’s full details.

Burke may have been particularly angry because reassigning the damage assessment workers hindered the company from telling blacked-out customers when their service would be restored — something that’s long been a problem for Con Ed. “One of the most important pieces of information that [customers] expect to be communicated to them is an early and accurate estimate for restoration . . . We’ve struggled to get that kind of accuracy to our customers,” John Miksad, Con Ed’s senior VP of electric operations, told the commission.

If you have a copy of Burke’s e-mail, I’d like to see it — my e-mail is  wpsanderson@gmail.com.

Burke was reported right in the thick of dealing with the blackouts — check out this story from last November in Crain’s. There was plenty else going on that could have caught his ire, the Moreland Commission said.

A particular problem was Con Ed’s inability to help customers whose own equipment was flooded during the storm. This has been a big issue with office buildings in lower Manhattan.

“Con Edison also faced significant flooding to its own equipment, including flooding that resulted in an explosion-like arcing of a piece of equipment in its East 13th Street  Transmission Substation,” the commission said. That was the main cause of the power outage that darkened most of Manhattan south of 34th street for days. The substation was designed to handle 12.5-foot storm surges; Sandy’s surges were 14 feet.

Con Ed’s outage management computer software simply couldn’t handle the scope of the storm, the Moreland Commission said — it had to be taken offline for 90 minutes amid the crisis for a software update. Ultimately, “Con Edison was forced to use paper forms to transmit information between the damage assessment units and engineering,” the commission said.

The commission also scored the company for playing politics in its “ad hoc” allocation of restoration crews. “During Hurricane Sandy, it allocated crews to ensure that all service territories were restored at about the same time. As its incident commander during Hurricane Sandy [Miksad] acknowledged, this consideration is in part practical, and in part political, stemming from Con Edison’s desire to avoid a public perception that ‘there’s a preferred class or preferred region’ in the restoration process.”

Of course, allocating crews partly on political considerations didn’t work out — people complained anyway. “It contributed to a sense within Con Edison’s service territories that other areas were receiving more than their fair share of the crews given those areas’ relative damage level,” the commission said.

At least Con Ed customers can be glad they don’t live in LIPA territory, which includes a small part of New York City, in the Rockaways. There seems no end to tales of corruption and incompetence at LIPA, and the commission says its “exorbitant” spending and the revolving door between LIPA and a highly paid consulting firm warrant a look by prosecutors. Here’s a New York Times report on that topic.

Advocates of giving consumers a bigger voice in rate cases and other public utility matters got a big boost from the Moreland report. “The State should create a Citizens Utility Board that is independent, controlled by ratepayers, adequately funded and not subject to political interference using one of the models identified herein,” the report said.

“There exists disparity in the ability of certain classes of utility customers to avail themselves of direct access to the decision-makers at the PSC [Public Service Commission] and DPS [Department of Public Service, the agency run by the PSC],” the report said, noting that utility company lawyers and lobbyists have “unfettered” access to the PSC chair and commissioners.

That’s unusual even for New York, which bars lobbyists and lawyers from similar access to officials at other state agencies. And, the commission noted, “many ratepayers lack the necessary resources to express their opinions and concerns on matters that impact their lives and their pocketbooks.”

A bill establishing a new agency to advocate for consumers in utility cases passed the Assembly last week, but its future is uncertain.

There’s plenty more in the Moreland report, which you’ll find here.

 

About Bill Sanderson

I'm a New York-based journalist, and a former reporter at the Concord Monitor in New Hampshire, the Bergen Record in New Jersey, and the New York Post. My work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, MarketWatch.com and Politico New York. Twitter: @wpsanderson.
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