Regulators say the companies failed to follow their own emergency response plans
It's been two years but a settlement has finally been agreed upon that holds RG&E and NYSEG accountable for their failures during the 2017 windstorm in western New York.
The storm left 125,000 customers in the Rochester area without power for days. The New York State Department of Public Service says the companies failed to follow their own emergency response plans that could have alleviated many of the problems that arose.
The parent company of RG&E and NYSEG will pay $3.9 million to settle the violations.
DPS says that money needs to come from shareholders, not ratepayers, and it needs to be used to better the utilities' responses in emergency situations.
In the months following the 2017 windstorm, DPS investigated both RG&E and NYSEG's response and found both failed to follow the plans they had in place to quickly assess the damage, offer fair restoration times and get the clean-up work done.
"Like many of the people in this room, especially those from Western New York as I am, I remember that storm very well. Indeed, it was disappointing at the time that NYSEG and RG&E took longer to restore service than National Grid given that they had relatively comparable service territories and damages," DPS Commissioner Gregg Sayre said at the settlement hearing in Albany on Thursday.
Similar sentiments were echoed by DPS Commissioner Jim Alesi.
"As I watched that all unfold, in reality, my disappointment went to disbelief but with regard to this particular settlement, I think it accomplishes what we're looking to do with regard to this issue," he said.
Almost as soon as the ink on the settlement was dry, the very same regulators blasted the same utilities for reliability and storm response during the 2018 storm season.
DPS investigators found that on a number of occasions last year, NYSEG and RG&E again failed to follow the emergency plans they have on record. So now, DPS is going to court to try and get a judge to order the companies to do better.
"Here, I think we're in the position of a blacksmith fixing a broken wheel. Sometimes you have to get out a bigger hammer," Sayre said before voting to move forward with requesting an injunction from a court.
President and CEO of NYSEG & RG&E Carl A. Taylor issued a statement to News10NBC, which reads in part:
"In the aftermath of the March 2017 windstorm, NYSEG and RG&E thoroughly reviewed our processes, listened to customers and municipal leaders, and developed ways to enhance service to better serve our communities. We also worked collaboratively with the Department of Public Service staff and other parties to reach a settlement that is in the best interest of our customers and communities, as they focus on new investments to increase system resiliency, strengthening our grid, and improving communications with customers in the areas that were impacted by the windstorm. We are pleased that the Public Service Commission has approved the joint proposal and look forward to continuing to build a more resilient energy infrastructure that serves New York State."
The statement notes that as part of the settlement, NYSEG and RG&E have committed the $3.9 million toward "storm hardening and resiliency efforts" — heavier and larger wood poles as well as composite poles using new technology. Among other improvements, the statement says they have purchased a mobile comand center allowing them to deploy key storm response personnel directly in the heart of affected areas, and RG&E will provide funding assistance for a backup generator for the City of Rochester's David F. Gantt Community Center, which can serve 200 families in the Greater Rochester area during extreme weather conditions.
" NYSEG and RG&E have implemented two-way texting with customers who have been identified as using medically-approved life-sustaining equipment (LSE) in their homes. Before and during potential power outages, these customers will receive direct communication via text message from our companies and will be able to communicate directly with a critical needs specialist during these events. Additionally, the companies are providing financial assistance to LSE customers who purchase batteries or other back-up power for their life-sustaining equipment. Customers can learn more and apply for LSE status through their healthcare professional, or by visiting nyseg.com or rge.com," the statement adds.