Readers Write: Hold PSEG accountable for power grid failure

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Newsday’s article of Aug. 10 reported 46,000 Long Island customers remained without power. Some 400,000 were initially impacted by the Aug. 4 storm. While we are all rightly outraged and focused on the massive lingering issues that actually go back to Hurricanes Irene and Sandy, there are several problems that must be addressed pertaining to the health and safety aspects of power outages, as well as to the viability of Long Island business.

An often-overlooked problem, however, is how solar installation companies operating on Long Island are contractually restricted by PSEG, and prohibited from configuring residential/business solar systems from providing power for their own use when PSEG’s power grid is interrupted or inoperative. This I relearned from a neighbor whom I mistakenly lauded for having the use of his solar power during the recent outage. I was reminded that I previously said the same, but I just filed it away and forgot because I don’t have a solar system.

Solar power generated by residential/business systems are only set up to deliver power one way, into PSEG’s grid, while the resident/business receives a credit for the generated power and subsequently purchases power supplied by PSEG from its grid.

I submit PSEG has abused this arrangement far too long. At the very minimum, when PSEG’s grid goes down in an area, impacted homeowners and businesses must be allowed to use the solar power generated by their systems to run critical systems, such as lights, refrigerator, heating, etc.. This is not merely an inconvenience, when PSEG’s grid is down the solar power that could otherwise be generated should be put to good use. The wasted potential gets us nowhere helpful or useful. Until large capacity battery systems are developed and economical for home and business use, the current setup is a one-way trip in no one’s best interest but PSEG’s.

This arrangement also discourages customers who want to install a solar system to safeguard against power outages.

Utilities contend the current setup protects worker safety. During a power outage solar systems automatically shut down so they don’t power the grid when workers are repairing the grid. This is good since worker safety is paramount. Solar systems have detectors which sense when power is coming from the grid.  When the grid power is down they automatically shut solar systems down, too. But the same automatic fail-safe breaker system that is tripped for a grid outage with minor re-configuring can prevent an inadvertent leak of solar generated power back into the grid until grid power is restored. This is old technology similar to how house circuit breakers work. Solar systems can be configured to safely provide a home or business with electricity during an outage, and, importantly, prevent back-flow into the grid.(Note 1). And can’t multiple backup circuit breakers be utilized, as well? This is not rocket science.  Electrical operations are often engineered to have multiple backup safety systems.

To give explain the personal health and safety impact of the recent outage, my wife and I help care for a 99-year-old uncle who is recovering from a major operation. His power went out during the storm; it only came back on more than three days later. Though our house was largely unaffected by the outage, we don’t have the equipment or setup to provide the constant intensive care the uncle needed, thus he was housebound without electric, refrigerator, hot water—his stove is also electric. During this time, we and others who diligently tried were unable to reach PSEG’s mislabeled “help number” by phone, PSEG’s website was often unavailable, and when it was available had confusing and constantly changing information that proved to be unreliable.

When the power grid fails everyone’s health and safety is negatively affected. So too is business. It is time to not only hammer out the serious concerns regarding PSEG’s preparedness, customer service, and the gaps in its power supply.  The hammering must include allowing PSEG’s residential and business solar contracts the ability to configure these solar systems for their own use during power outages as a viable option.

Additionally, PSEG’s reason doesn’t hold up because building codes require that electrical work be completed by certified professionals, which is nothing different. Isn’t this something that certified electrical engineers and installers do, by ensuring regulations and plans are followed, the quality of work is up to spec, and safety is paramount? Of course, and why there is a permit process to begin with.

Now might also be a good time to revive another age old power play. LI’s prior and current power companies have all been allowed to sidestep not having to bury at least critical major power lines. My knowledge begins with LILCO in the ’60s, when burring key lines would have been easier and much less disruptive. Yet for the public’s largesse the company dodged the matter, then subsequently pushed its Shoreham nuclear power plant debacle that drained billions of dollars from LI’s economy for years. Alas, LILCO’s CEO and investors were made whole. One thing at a time, it must remain a hard lesson lived and relearned for another time.

Stephen Cipot
Garden City Park

The author is a retired scientist and project manager
formerly with the U.S.E.P.A.

Note 1: The exceptions are when a solar system is equipped with energy storage, or one that is not grid-tied or solely an off-grid system.

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