Utility strikes an ambitious course for the future - Part I

LIPA Officials Make Their Case

 

It’s NOT your father’s electric company. And LIPA officials can’t stress that strongly enough.

On Friday, August 24, a contingent of Long Island Power Authority officials sat down with The Independent to talk. Its predecessor, the Long Island Lighting Company, was the utility everyone loved to hate, and with good reason: at one point rates were among the highest in the country, blackouts were frequent, outages occurred often, and getting someone on the phone for help was akin to calling up heaven and expecting God to answer.

But since taking over the LILCO grid two decades ago, LIPA has dramatically improved service, though the grumblings continue, albeit on a smaller scale.

In 2014 LIPA turned over the maintenance of the grid from National Grid to PSEG-LI. “We own the grid, we pay a service charge. They get paid some extras for things like customer service,” said Thomas Falcone, LIPA’s CEO.

The system is a big one: 1.1 million customers, 2400 employees, 189,000 transformers, and a $3.6 billion annual budget.

In other words, it is a system that has a lot of moving parts, one that requires constant upkeep and updating. LIPA has delivered, according to an independent study by JD Power & Associates.

In 2018 Power named LIPA, “The Most Improved Utility in The Nation.” Consider that in 2013 it not only ranked last, but it ranked last by a large margin. “We’re mid pack now, but that’s not where we want to be,” Falcone said. It comes down to customer service and reliability.

One intuitive that has really paid off is the utility’s storm-hardening program. Occasionally some local groups have complained about trimming trees along utility lines, for example. But the alternative is frozen tree branches tumbling onto electric wires. “Everyone loves trees, I understand that. But you don’t want a tree coming down,” Falcone pointed out.

An aggressive plan to replace aging poles also met with fierce opposition in some quarters. Though the poles were aging and in some cases unsafe, their replacements were taller. “Some of those were built in the ’50s and ’60s,” Falcone said of the poles that were replaced. “Construction standards are better now.”

“Nobody wants brownouts,” Falcone said. In 2018 storm-hardened circuits greatly reduced outages and damages. During 2018 nor’easters the average restoration time to repair went from almost seven hours to four and storm-hardened systems were 80 percent less likely to be damaged.

But improving service is just one component of being a good provider. The public clamors for lower rates, and Falcone said LIPA’s recent history compares well with any of its competitors, despite criticism by some politicians.

The average monthly bill was $154.26 in 2008 and is $158.61 so far this year. Those rates are “competitive for the region,” though higher than some elsewhere in the county, where expenses are cheaper, Falcone said.

The Independent’s news division editor, Stephen Kotz, brought up the prospect of burying future electric lines as opposed to stringing them along poles. Falcone said the company does both. “Trimming trees is cheaper than going underground, so we use overhead lines whenever possible,” Falcone said. However, LIPA is always willing work with the community to find common group in the event a neighborhood is dead set against installing poles.

The system in 66 percent overhead and 34 percent underground currently.

In addition to Falcone, LIPA’s director of customer service, Michael J. Deering, its director of communications, Sidhartha Nathan, and deputy director of communications, Jen Hayen, also attended the meeting.

The Independent’s executive editor Rick Murphy spent a good portion of the meeting discussing Deepwater Wind, an offshore project slated to bring power into Wainscott. That conversation will be related in next week’s issue.

rmurphy@indyeastend.com