Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Niagara Mohawk Withdraws Request to Delay Mobile Scanning for Stray Voltage in Upstate Cities

The PSC adopted an order in 2005 instituting new standards requiring New York electric utilities to conduct safety inspection of their distribution systems. In the 2004 order that led to the new standards, the PSC expressed concern that its regulatory policies favoring long term rate plans and reduced oversight had led utilities to cut costs in ways that threatened safety of the public, stating:
Over the past 10 to 15 years, we and other regulatory commissions across the nation have moved from traditional one-year litigated rate cases to multi-year performance-based rate plans. The purpose of these plans is to allow for rate stability while allowing the utilities greater flexibility in managing their operations. Staff's investigation into this matter suggests that the utilities may not have been placing enough attention and emphasis on safety matters. For example, we were surprised and disappointed to learn that three of the major electric utilities have conducted no stray voltage testing and have no plans to do so. **** The utilities are responsible for ensuring that they are maximizing the safety of their electric systems. The fact that some utilities have done nothing regarding stray voltage suggests that the focus of utility management may need realignment.
Niagara Mohawk's "Elevated Voltage Testing and Facility Inspection Report" for 2008 shows at page 81 that the utility found 178 instances of elevated voltage in its distribution facilities. Also, elevated voltage was found in 433 street light facilities, owned by municipalities.

In a December 15, 2008 Order Adopting Changes to Electric Safety Standards, the PSC revised the standards. Among other changes, the order required upstate utilities to conduct a mobile scan of their distribution systems in 2009, to better detect situations where people might be endangered by "stray voltage," stating
All utilities, with the exception of Con Edison, shall complete an initial mobile stray voltage detection survey of their underground electric distribution systems, in appropriate areas of cities with a population of at least 50,000 (based on the results of the 2000 census), during calendar year 2009 to positively identify those areas that can be effectively surveyed, and annually thereafter until further Commission action.

****Con Edison shall continue to conduct twelve complete mobile stray voltage surveys annually until directed otherwise by the Commission.
The mobile scans were required because in recent years, sensitive truck-mounted equipment has been developed which detects even slight "stray voltage" while driving slowly through the streets. It identifies facilities needing further inspection, repair or maintenance. It may be particularly effective in areas where the electric system is underground, because metal plates, covers, or streetlights, or even sidewalks and other public areas may become energized due to unseen insulation failures, poor connections, or corrosion in the underground system.

On August 28, 2009, Niagara Mohawk d/b/a/ National Grid petitioned the Commission to delay implementation of the new requirement in 2009, citing cost concerns and efforts to find additional bidders to provide the scanning service.

Comments opposing the petition were filed by the Jodie S. Lane Public Safety Foundation, pointing out the superiority of the mobile scanning process, and the need to protect the public:
The goal of energized object detection is to Look for energized objects, Find energized objects, and Mitigate energized objects in order to reduce shock events. The goal is “Reduce shocks”. In the last 5 years National Grid has performed manual testing and found few energized objects. Furthermore National Grid only mitigates about 25% of what they find. The impact of this anemic approach is as expected…they are ineffective at reducing shock risk for their rate payer. The shocks in their service area have not declined. What they are doing is ineffective. What they propose is a continuation of a failed approach.
Power Survey Company, the provider of mobile scanning services, stated in its comments that it did a partial scan of Niagara Mohawk facilities in the Buffalo area in the summer of 2008, and identified 320 stray voltage situations in just 32 hours -- 194% more than Niagara Mohawk found in the entire year in its entire New York system using manual scanning techniques.

The New York State Consumer Protection Board filed comments opposing the utility request, citing 48 shock incidents reported by National Grid in 2008 caused by company-owned facilities, and the overriding importance of public health and safety concerns.

On September 14, 2009, Niagara Mohawk withdrew its waiver request.

This is a very welcome development and to the credit of Niagara Mohawk that it reconsidered its position and will now go forward with the mobile testing this year. The company should also consider extending the mobile scans beyond the minimum required by the PSC, i.e., to areas other than the cities with populations greater than 50,000.

PULP still believes that the PSC should consider new performance metrics -- in addition to testing -- to incent utilities to reduce the number of shock incidents, fires, explosions, and property damage, as we stated in our comments in 2004, when the safety and inspection standards were initially under consideration by the PSC.

No comments: