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Clarkson’s Collins says utilities commission will look at North Country

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POTSDAM - After releasing a preliminary report recommending strengthening state regulation and the privatization of a down-state agency, the sole north country representative on a commission investigating utilities’ response to recent storms says their work has only begun.

Clarkson University President Anthony G. Collins said the commission, called by Governor Andrew M. Cuomo after complaints of slow response to Hurricane Sandy last fall, would spend time scrutinizing power companies’ response to storms throughout the state.

“I think that it is a real advantage for the north country to have a representative on the commission so that our issues are brought forward,” Mr. Collins said.“We’re unique, we have a rural setting, that brings unique problems to post storm recovery. Having a regional rep, we can be certain that those issues will be looked at along with the downstate areas.”

Mr. Collins said utility companies operate as monopolies in New York, operating with little oversight.

“One of the really critical issues that has somehow slipped through the system is that the utilities essentially have franchises for lives. There are no conditions under which they can be revoked,” he said.“If you can’t revoke the franchises, then there are no teeth to the regulations.”

On Monday, the commission, which was convened under the Moreland Act, called for the privatization of the Long Island Power Authority.

“There will be scrutiny of others, but they have certainly not have the same issues that LIPA has had,” Mr. Collins said.“It was clear from our interviews that the structure of the response was flawed— we have not heard anywhere near the same level of concern from other utilities.”

Mr. Collins emphasized the commission’s scope was not the power grid’s stability, but the response from utilities.

“There is a question of how we react to those outages, that is really what we’re focused on,” he said.“As long as we have overhead power lines, we’re going to have branches coming down on them. It is a question of how we respond and communicate so the public is informed.”

The commission also recommended the Public Service Commission, which audits utilities and can sanction them if they violate its orders, be strengthened. It criticized the PSC for failing to regularly review utility companies’ storm response plans and suggested fines levied against utilities for violations be increased over their current $100,000 maximum.

If utility companies repeat their violations, the commission recommended empowering the PSC to revoke their operating certificates.

“They need the opportunity to revoke a franchise, and they need to be able to impose higher penalties,” Mr. Collins said.“Just having the Public Service Commission, if they don’t have teeth, there is little they can do.”

Finally, the commission recommended streamlining the Department of Public Service and the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority to eliminate redundancies between the agencies. Currently, both agencies oversee initiatives to encourage energy efficiency throughout the state.

“They overlap, for example, if you want to apply for energy to make a facility more efficient in our region, both National Grid and NYSERDA have identical programs,” Mr. Collins said.“That is a redundancy that costs the ratepayer money.”

The findings were released ahead of Mr. Cuomo’s State of the State address today.

“The commission only started working a few weeks ago,” commission spokesman David H. Neustadt said. “They couldn’t get to anything quite yet, this was a preliminary report to address some of the more immediate issues in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. There is a plan to continue the work and focus on the other areas of the state”

Going forward, the commission’s scope includes the response to damage in the north country from a 2008 ice storm, which left some households without power for eight days. Mr. Collins said the commission would scrutinize National Grid’s response to the storm.

“I believe that, historically, recovery efforts have been substantially better here than they were on Long Island,” he said.“Again, it wasn’t necessarily the rate of recovery, it was the people who looked to be communicated with. On Long Island, they had 6,000 linemen and they were watching crews sitting around for days —that was because of the dysfunctional oversight of LIPA. We have not had those kinds of issues in the north country, National Grid is a pretty efficient operation.”

Mr. Collins estimated the commission could wrap-up their work as early as February.

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