Utilities, state must improve infrastructure to meet future storms
“You can pay me now or pay me later” is a phrase you may remember from an ad some years back, a bit simpler in expression than one of Ben Franklin’s oft-quoted maxims: “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”
The point is that spending some effort and treasure early in the service of preparing for or preventing a foreseeable tragedy is far less expensive than having to address the latter fully when and after it occurs.
Franklin’s contemporary concern was fire prevention, since widespread catastrophic misfortune was the almost certain consequence of structure fires during the Colonial period.
Which brings us to the subject of Superstorm Sandy. Some argue that Sandy was unprecedented and, therefore, could not have been foreseen, at least insofar as the full intensity of its effects were concerned. However, scientists have been warning about the potential consequences of a powerful, cyclonic storm — a “perfect storm,” if you will — for metropolitan New York for decades at least. In truth, it was only the timing that was speculative; the eventuality was always a near certainty.
The real question in the face of foreseeable disaster is how much preparation is warranted and prudent, taking into account other priorities and the financial costs associated with taking such steps. In the case of Sandy, it is clear after the fact that more could have and maybe should have been done beforehand. It is just as clear that even if it had, the effects might have been mitigated, but not entirely avoided.
Erosion of purpose
However, that fact hardly excuses the sustained reluctance on the part of our utilities or the state that regulates them to take a more activist stance in favor of preventive measures to better protect the infrastructure that delivers our electricity and communications. The Sep. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks seemed to initially spur some activity in this regard, but more than a decade later there is far too little to show for all the nobly expressed intent.
For the federal government, Sandy has exposed, once again, the insufficient resiliency of mobile phone systems, fully seven years after a similar experience with Katrina. The FCC — which exercises primary regulatory authority in this sphere — has announced hearings on the necessity for requiring back-up power sources for cell towers. Perhaps this time, action will follow?
Sandy has also brought a renewed focus on other infrastructure concerns about which there have been numerous, though smaller, warning signs for years, but which somehow have also managed to avoid concerted attention from utilities or their state regulators.
Take a look around. For much of the state, this infrastructure looks about the same as it did a hundred years ago — exposed wiring on aging and deteriorating wooden poles surrounded by invasive trees and vegetation and fully exposed to the weathering effects of the elements. In light of this systemic stasis, is it acceptable in the 21st century for homes and businesses to have to suffer long service interruptions when inclement weather occurs? After all, there’s nothing unforeseeable or uniquely destructive about a snowstorm, gusty winds or heavy rain.
Far from being mitigated, these outages are becoming more frequent and lengthy. Clearly, there has been insufficient effort given to simple maintenance, let alone long-term incremental improvement or “hardening” of these infrastructures against already well-known corrosive elements and environmental threats.
Furthermore, utilities have been cutting their work forces to the point where assistance needs to be called in from neighboring states to address relatively minor service outages. The effect is to extend both response and repair time while increasing the inconvenience and potential harm to customers.
By now we should have learned that, left to their own devices, private interests — like those that own the state’s utilities — are predisposed to choose and maximize short-term profits over taking on the expense associated with looking to the future. They see the benefits of most preventive efforts as too speculative to justify forgoing those immediate gains. Wall Street and current business conventions unhelpfully buttress these recalcitrant views.
This is where public sector regulatory oversight must reform and reassert itself, substituting both wider and longer perspectives in a state policy better designed to serve more than just the immediate and all too narrow concerns of the utilities.
This won’t be easy. Regulators will need to alter their existing perceptions of themselves. Generally, their behavior has been too collaborative with — even too dependent upon — and therefore too accommodating to, the utilities they regulate. They are, at times, too easily susceptible to political pressure as well.
A more hard-nosed posture of dispassionate oversight and enforcement is called for, based on public policies both informed by and demonstrably based on objective, scientifically applied study and evaluation of policy alternatives. This means divorcing themselves from overreliance on industry sources for intelligence and information, as well as rediscovering their legally independent status.
Of course, the regulatory process always involves a complex balancing of interests — that of the present and the future, those of ratepayers, utility shareholders, the utilities themselves and the communities and state they serve.
With the serious infrastructure challenges facing us, the times call for more nimble, objective, revitalized and refocused regulatory bodies. The utilities are not and will not be oriented toward aggressively addressing these challenges on their own or we would not be where we are now. It is time for our regulators to more smartly step up.
John A. Figliozzi recently retired from state service, where he was a section chief for the Public Service Commission’s Office of Telecommunications. He lives in Halfmoon and is a regular contributor to the Sunday Opinion section.