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November 18, 2013

Commission Continues its Examination of Utility Storm Response

Today’s session, like many over the past year, focused on emergency preparation and response by the energy, communications and water companies in New York.  Similar to the regulatory response after 9/11, Superstorm Sandy redefined expectations regarding network reliability and resiliency.  After Sandy, however, the Moreland Commission and a variety of other Executive commissions also opined regarding improvements that needed to be made to the State’s utilities’ operations in these regards. Many of those recommendations were the subject of today’s session.

Chair Audrey Zibelman opened the session by noting that “issues around storm resilience have become critical” and that we are now experiencing “a world with weather-related incidents.”  Staff member Raj Adepalli noted that while focus has historically been on above ground electric facilities, the Commission’s oversight has been broadened to include below-ground electric and gas facilities (due to the damage from the flooding of the storms) as well as the coordination of telecom, gas and water companies with the electric utilities.

Commissioner Brown discussed his impressions of his tours last year during Sandy (while he was Chairman), and noted that the staging/lodging/logistics issues were daunting and not well-coordinated between the utilities. PSC Staff Mike Worden agreed that there are opportunities to address this in the future both in New York and through national cooperative efforts. Chair Zibelman agreed and suggested a technical conference next year related to this issue.

Commissioner Sayre noted that the biggest challenges faced by telecom providers during emergency situations were lack of credentials to access storm areas (they are not recognized as critical infrastructure) and lack of access to fuel (diesel and gasoline).

The Commission and Staff discussed its development of a ‘scorecard’: a quantification of electric utilities’ emergency preparation and response.  According to Staff, New York is the first state in the country to tackle this challenge, which is intended to drive improvements in utilities’ resiliency.  Chair Zibelman expressed her concurrence that “If you don’t measure it you won’t excel.” Staff noted the critical nature of good communication protocols in measuring utility response.

Emergency response and preparedness issues as they relate to communications services were also discussed at length at this session.  The industry was largely lauded for its response during the Sandy event.  The critical interdependence between electricity and telecommunications  and between the wireless and wireline industries were discussed at length.  In addition, the Chair and Staff both discussed the potential role that new technologies such as fuel cells and distributed generation could play in providing resiliency to the communications networks.

Finally, there was a relatively minor but interesting item that related to electric vehicles – The Commission held that electric recharging facilities for electric vehicles do not constitute ‘electric plant’ under the Public Service Law. By eliminating the potential for burdensome regulation, the Commission hopes to facilitate the development of the electric vehicle industry.  While noting that changed circumstances may require the Commission to revisit this issue in the future, she stated that “the  thing we can do is to stand down” and “…let the industry grow.”

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