Mayor says National Grid failed to communicate properly with Troy officials

TROY, NEW YORK - The state Public Service Commission opened an investigation into National Grid's handling of the power outage that crippled Troy, New York on July 10.

Also, Mayor Harry Tutunjian said the utility failed to adequately inform him what was going on until the lights came back on in City Hall. "It was a lack of communication, simply put," Tutunjian said. Outages also plagued Saratoga County and areas north after a thunder and lightning storm over Corinth the evening of July 9 caused more than 100,000 people to lose power. The following evening, about 1,600 customers in the Capital Region remained without power, almost all of them in Saratoga, Warren and Albany counties. Tutunjian said he was told that a computer system was responsible for shutting down power to Troy.

National Grid officials said this was designed to spare more damage to the city's electrical grid following other violent storms that hit the Capital Region.

The storms caused damage to substations, transmission lines and poles, putting a strain on the electrical grid. As temperatures surged toward the 90s, demand on the system triggered outages. Simultaneously, National Grid shut down some power being sent to Troy to avoid more problems.

"We were in danger of having an overload," said National Grid spokesman Patrick Stella. "It could have been more widespread than it was." Tutunjian said National Grid told him the utility wanted to avoid further damage to its equipment in downtown Troy - most of which is underground and difficult to repair - and that is one of the reasons service to the city was cut off.

"They did admit that Troy was taken off the grid by their computer system," he said. "When downtown Troy goes, that is a problem." Tutunjian was upset that he and other city officials were neither informed in advance that the shutdown would take place nor given a projected length for the outage. City officials were left guessing how long they would have to provide emergency services to citizens. Initial reports from National Grid's Web site - which Tutunjian and other city officials read huddled in City Hall with a battery-powered laptop with ireless Internet access - said restoration efforts would take more than 24 hours.

That turned out not to be true. After failing at about 11 a.m. July 10, electricity was restored to City Hall at about 3:30 p.m. and to most of the city by 6:15 p.m. "When you are the mayor, you are trying to set up for the worst-case scenario," Tutunjian said. "We were prepared for the worst." Rensselaer County Executive Kathleen Jimino offered similar sentiments about the lack of communication, an issue National Grid has been warned about by the PSC after past storms. "We would have liked to have some notice from National Grid even if it was five or 10 minutes' warning so we could have been responsive to the needs of our constituents," Jimino said.

"If we had some heads-up going into this, we could have been more effective." Tutunjian said he met with National Grid officials who promised him the next time a major electrical outage occurs in Troy, a utility official will be dispatched to work at the city's command center. He added the city may seek to recover energy-response costs, including police officer overtime, which totaled at least $15,000. "We're calling upon the PSC to see if that is something they can help us with," he said. PSC spokeswoman Anne Dalton said the agency would be looking into a variety of issues related to National Grid's storm response in the region, especially in Troy.

She said the inquiry will involve power-restoration procedures and priorities, a d whether restoration was performed in the proper sequence. She said the PSC also would look at how and when National Grid notified the city about the plans to cut power. Typically, PSC regulations trigger an automatic investigation after any outage that lasts more than 72 hours, but Dalton said this investigation was requested by the PSC's staff.

"It was a large outage," she said. "We at any time can look at matters that effect service to customers." Patrick Curran, executive director of the Energy Association of New York State, the Albany-based trade group that represents National Grid and other utilities, said despite perceptions, power outages do not happen more frequently than they did in the past. He said New York's utilities are actually more reliable than their counterparts in California and the Midwest.

The problem, he said, is that people today rely on electricity to run computers, air conditioners, televisions and other devices more than the ever have, and a loss of power is a greater inconvenience. "This system is essentially a machine. All machines break," Curran said. "People almost view it as an entitlement, and have very little tolerance for when it's not there."

Despite the frustration, Troy and Rensselaer County officials said they were back in business the following day. "We've got power. Our senior (citizen) centers are all open," Jimino said. Tutunjian said the city had no major infrastructure problems and that everything was functioning.

In Saratoga County, colossal tree damage in Hadley the evening of July 10 led to widespread power outages, said Paul Lent, the county's director of emergency services.

"National Grid was saying they had three miles of cable down," he said. Lent said representatives from the utility were in contact with him throughout the night. County workers began clearing the debris at first light the next day so utility workers could restore power. By midafternoon, most National Grid customers in the county had power. But Saratoga Springs Mayor Valerie Keehn said she was frustrated by a lack of information from National Grid.

"I was in the dark, literally and figuratively," she said.


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