The New York State Electric and Gas Company (NYSEG) would like the New York State Public Service Commission (PSC) to allow the company to raise the amount it charges customers in Sullivan County and other upstate communities by 23.7%. When some people in this area think of NYSEG, they are reminded of spending nine to 14 days without electricity in March 2018 in the wake of two powerful snowstorms, and losing it again in a windstorm in May.
The community was outraged with the performance of the company in the aftermath of the outages. Assemblywoman Aileen Gunther spoke at a resiliency conference convened in April 2018. “I’ve been in Sullivan County 39 years, we had Superstorm Sandy, and it keeps happening, and why is that? It’s because they’re not investing in the infrastructure that’s necessary to keep people in communication, to keep electricity on. In Forestburgh, we had a 90-year-old woman with hypothermia, taken out in an ambulance… We need to get the Spectrums, the O&Rs the NYSEGS, to get them to Sullivan County and make sure they’re providing us with the infrastructure we need.” And she said they should not wait to act until after there is an emergency.
The lack of communication and coordination in the response was astonishing. Crews from Canada and other states sat idle for a full day because there was no one from the electric company to guide their work and let them know which electric lines were live and which were not.
Tusten Supervisor Carol Wingert also spoke at the conference and said at one point there were 17 utility trucks with two-man crews sitting in the town barn parking lot for five hours. She asked why they were sitting around, and they said they were awaiting their orders. She found their supervisor and introduced herself and asked why, and the answer was they were assigned to “this sector of the grid.”
She told the supervisor the crews needed to go south on Route 97 where just about all of the residents of the Town of Highland had their electricity knocked out by the second storm, and within about 15 minutes, the trucks began moving. “But,” she said, “it should not take me, as the supervisor of a town, to do that.”
Meanwhile, customers who depended on medical devices powered by electricity were put in dangerous situations, and many people were forced to deal with temperatures in their homes that hovered around the freezing mark. The people who lived through that nightmare were not happy. And now, one of the two companies most responsible for the nightmare wants a huge raise from it ratepayers.
NYSEG says it needs the increase to address infrastructure issues. The legislators of Sullivan County, understandably, have questions. The Sullivan County Legislature issued a press release stating concern about the proposed increase.
District 4 Legislator Catherine Owens, who chairs the legislature’s sustainability committee, said, “We experience a lot of multiple-day power outages in Sullivan County, most recently after winter storms Riley and Skylar in March 2018 and the May 2018 microburst event. Prolonged outages create dangerous situations for our residents and disrupt local businesses. We are happy that NYSEG recognizes this problem and wants to address a backlog of vegetation control and transmission hardening for storm resiliency, but we want to make sure they will add enough local crews to improve their emergency response significantly.”
NYSEG is also asking permission from the PSC to close its customer service office in Liberty. “We are also concerned about NYSEG’s plans to close their walk-in office in Liberty as part of a general move to online services and a more automated approach to customer service,” said Luis Alvarez, chairman of the Sullivan County Legislature. “In a county with 4,982 households that don’t have a computer, and 6,642 households that lack access to broadband, NYSEG must provide face-to-face customer service to ensure that the most vulnerable customers, including the elderly and low-income families, are not negatively affected.”
NYSEG is a subsidiary of a company called Avangrid, and the largest shareholder of Avangrid is the Spanish company Iberdola. Like most corporations, one of its main goals is to make money for shareholders, and it affirms this with a post on the Avangrid website, which says the Avangrid board operates “with a view to enhancing the long-term value of Avangrd for its shareholders.”
With that goal in mind, it’s hardly surprising that NYSEG is seeking such a large increase. The goal of the PSC, however, is to ensure that the residents of New York have access to safe and secure access to electricity and other forms of power. It’s not likely that the PSC will grant the full requested NYSEG increase. But whatever increase is approved should also come with a requirement that NYSEG take much stronger steps to maintain the electricity infrastructure in Upstate New York.