With winter approaching, municipal officials in Westchester County met this week with the president of Con Edison to see what measures the utility company is implementing to avoid a repeat of March. That was when two storms left thousands in the region without power for days. In May, a coalition of Westchester leaders presented Con Ed with a report that contained recommendations. Con Ed says it is responding.
Between March 2 and March 14, two severe storms caused widespread power outages for more than 590,000 New Yorkers, some for as long as 10 days. Democratic Westchester County Executive George Latimer lashed out at utility companies during the power outages, calling for the presidents to step down and criticizing what he said was poor communication. Standing outside Con Edison’s Rye location following an October 16 meeting, Latimer says there is progress.
“The United Westchester organization, a coalition of local governments, got together under David Buchwald’s leadership, and our assistance at the county level, to identify what the priority issues were that we thought we needed to have progress made on,” Latimer says. “Add we’re very happy to hear today from Con Edison that eight of the 10 major recommendations that came out of it are things that they are implementing or in the process of implementing, which is good news for us as we look forward.”
He refers to Democratic Assemblyman David Buchwald. Buchwald says United Westchester released a 48-page report in May.
“The extended power outages we’ve been experiencing are unacceptable,” Buchwald says. “And we’re pleased to be here today with Con Ed recognizing that fact and taking very tangible steps to ensure that we have more reliability of our utility electrical infrastructure going forward.”
Buchwald believes that the actions Con Edison is announcing will give customers a bit more faith. Con Edison President Tim Cawley says the report as well as input during meetings with municipal officials were key factors in how the company plans to improve storm preparedness and response. Cawley says Con Ed is embarking on a number of initiatives.
“The first is we’ll invest $100 million in storm resiliency in our overhead system. Following Sandy, we invested about $100 million and saw tangible gains in reduced numbers of outages,” Cawley says. “We see there’s an opportunity to further invest in this system and prevent outages from occurring.”
He says this $100 million investment in Westchester will not impact customer bills.
“So currently in customer bills is a reflection that we’re investing $3 billion a year. That’s there. This’ll be part of that,” says Cawley. “So it’s targeted for Westchester but it will not materially impact it.”
Cawley says, in March, Con Ed had to reach far and thus wait longer for outside crews to come in and assist.
“We’re going to take an approach largely from input we received from United Westchester and the municipalities,” says Cawley. “We’ll actually have provisions to fly crews in from the West Coast.”
He turns to the West Coast given the likelihood that there would not be severe weather on both coasts simultaneously. Cawley says Con Ed would lease about 100 bucket trucks for mutual aid crews. Plus, the company has created a pilot program.
“Trees were a very large factor in the March event, and they are the number one cause of outages on the overhead system, downed trees,” Cawley says. “And so we’ve embarked on a pilot where we will, we have arborists go out and look at trees that are unhealthy, they’re in imminent danger of failure, and rather than let them fall during a storm, we’re going to proactively work with customers and the municipalities to remove those trees. In Cortlandt, we’ve inventoried about 300 such trees and have worked with homeowners to remove them.”
In addition, Cawley acknowledged that communication with customers and municipal officials regarding progress and restoration times needed improvement. He encourages customers to sign up for text alerts. And he says the company is increasing its staffing of overhead line constructors while still relying upon mutual aid crews.
At the direction of Governor Andrew Cuomo, the state Public Service Commission launched an investigation into the way utilities handled storm preparation and restoration efforts. The PSC conducted hearings of seven utilities, including Con Edison, following the March storms. A PSC spokesman says staff conducted more than 30 interviews with local officials as well as top-level utility executives responsible, held 20 public hearings in the impacted areas, and issued numerous information requests to the utilities. He says the utilities have submitted detailed reports on how they handled storm preparation and restoration efforts, and those reports are being scrutinized. At the conclusion of the PSC investigation, the spokesman says staff will be making recommendations, including whether utilities should face sanctions.