Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has at least the germ of a good idea: The slow-footed response of power companies to the catastrophic damage caused by Superstorm Sandy demands an official response.
Cuomo is proposing to give the state the authority to decertify utilities that don’t measure up. It’s an idea that is somewhat murky – no one seems to know what decertifying a utility would mean – and that may or may not be the best approach. But it’s a place to start.
Sandy struck the Northeast coast of the United States on Oct. 29, cutting off power to some 2.1 million customers in New York State alone. It took 21 days to restore power to nearly all of them. That was a terrible performance, and it could have been much worse if severely cold weather arrived during that time.
A commission investigating the utilities has recommended privatizing the Long Island Power Authority, currently a creature of the state, but Cuomo wants to do more than that. His goal is to give the Public Service Commission greater regulatory power over energy companies.
“You have an ineffective regulatory structure in this state,” Cuomo said. “We want to have a situation where we truly regulate them and, to truly regulate them, I believe you have to be able to terminate the relationship. Otherwise, you have no ultimate sanction.”
Others say the PSC already has powers that it doesn’t use effectively, including the power to deny rate increases. Whether those existing powers are sufficient or if the PSC needs greater disciplinary power over utilities is a question that Cuomo and lawmakers must answer, but they begin with the conclusion that some more-formal oversight mechanism needs to be in place.
It cannot be tolerable – especially as climate change threatens more frequent destructive storms – for the state’s utilities to be unprepared for a disaster. No one disputes that it can take some time to restore service after an event as catastrophic as Sandy, but utilities need to be adequately prepared so that power can be restored as efficiently as possible.
That will require some level of government intervention. Whether it is Cuomo’s decertification proposal, new requirements for the PSC to use existing authority more forcefully or some other option is what the governor and lawmakers should debate this year – and before this fall’s hurricane season hits.