As Long Islanders went days and even weeks without power following Superstorm Sandy's Oct. 29 landfall, anger intensified at the Long Island Power Authority, or LIPA, for the utility's inept handling of power restoration to local homes and businesses.
Politicians and customers are calling for management changes and system modernization.
On Nov. 13, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) established a 10-member commission to investigate the response of electric utilities to several major storms that have swept through the state over the past two years. "As we adjust to the reality of more frequent major weather incidents, we must study and learn from these past experiences to prepare for the future," Cuomo said in a statement.
The panel also will make specific recommendations to reform and modernize New York's power-delivery system. Expect LIPA privatization to be at the top of the to-do list, industry sources say.
New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman (D) is pushing his own probe. He issued subpoenas to Con Edison and LIPA to find out more about their response and recovery efforts.
By most accounts, Con Ed, which provides power to New York City and Westchester, N.Y., fared better. Clark Gellings, a fellow with the Palo Alto, Calif.-based Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), says, "What Con Ed did was heroic in terms of how quickly they managed to clean up, dry and inspect the equipment before they energized it."
But LIPA is a different story.
The Long Island electric utility "was primed for disaster," says a source who sought anonymity because his firm does business with LIPA. "It is primarily an overhead line utility, with a lot of vegetation, sitting on a sandbar, in a hurricane corridor." Moreover, "the consensus is that there is a crisis of leadership … with a general lack of utility management expertise at the top."
LIPA's chief operating officer, Mike Hervey, who also has served as LIPA's CEO for the past two years, resigned on Nov. 13, effective at the end of the year.
LIPA's new management will be under the gun to build a smarter, more robust system. Cuomo is asking the federal government for approximately $30 billion to upgrade LIPA's critical infrastructure, and a good portion would go toward replacing outmoded power infrastructure.
LIPA's central control system "can't tell you where power is out or how long before the system comes back on line," says Mike Edmonds, vice president of strategic solutions at S&C Electric Co., Chicago. Modern "smart" systems, he says, use "a distributed intelligence approach based on GPS" technology.
LIPA did not respond to ENR's request for comment. But on its website, LIPA said on Nov. 13 that it had restored power to 99% of the customers who were able to safely receive power, with a total of more than 1.1 million outages restored. However, thousands remained without power in Nassau and Suffolk counties.
Putting LIPA lines underground is unlikely, Edmonds says, because the procedure often costs 10 times as much as overhead wiring and LIPA rates are already among the highest in the country.
EPRI's Gellings says LIPA could do other things to "harden" the grid. Adding extra guy wires would stabilize poles. "Sometimes, if you put an extra one on a critical pole—like a corner one or one that has a lot of equipment on it—that pole is less likely to come down," he says.
Another way to improve reliability would be to configure distribution so that electricity could be routed along different paths during an outage. LIPA's smart switches can do this now, Edmonds says, but not the centralized control system.
Smart systems can identify where outages are and ensure that work crews know where to go, Gellings adds. EPRI plans to do a pilot test in Alabama this month with an unmanned reconnaissance drone that takes high-resolution photos and uses GPS technology. Utilities could use the drones to pinpoint outages and quickly dispatch repair crews, he says.