What can the Public Service Commission really do to restore power?

With power outages affecting an estimated two million people in the state on Tuesday, hundreds of thousands of them in New York City, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that the state Public Service Commission will monitor utility companies’ work to restore service.

“On the restoration of power, we’re going to ask the Public Service Commission to oversee these utility companies in restoring the power and making sure it’s being done well and as quickly as possible,” Cuomo vowed.

So what is this mighty entity that can bring Con Edison and the Long Island Power Authority to heel? Well, the Public Service Commission may not be quite as mighty as the governor’s words might suggest.

New York State law dictates that the five-member commission — which oversees the state’s electrical, gas, steam, water, telephone and cable companies — must review utilities’ performance in the event of outages lasting longer than three days. In order to operate in New York State, utilities must certify to the commission that they have storm-recovery plans in place. They also are required to conduct their own internal performance reviews to submit to the commission following long-lasting outages.

Monitoring what the companies actually do in the event of outages is in fact a standard part of the commission’s job. Sometimes, the investigations end with credits on the bills of customers who were deprived of service in the storms. During Irene and Tropical Storm Lee — events that affected only a fraction of the number of customers already in the dark for days due to Sandy — utility companies gave out more than $1.75 million in credits at the commission’s request.

In the end, none of that ensures that customers suffering in the dark get power turned back on promptly. And what’s worse, the real action at the Public Service Commission will take place the next time Con Ed and LIPA ask the Public Service Commission to increase rates customers pay, which for Con Ed could start as soon as November.

In the past, companies have sometimes angled to increase their rates because of the costs of dealing with a large weather event, recalled Gerald Norlander, executive director of the Public Utility Law Project of New York. Utilities tend to set a certain amount of money aside as a sort of “rainy day — or really rainy day” fund, he said, but exceptional events can get expensive.

As far as the Public Service Commission’s role in the days to come, he said it will undoubtedly have a presence.

“They mobilize when there are emergencies,” he said, “and they’re definitely watching.”


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