Suffolk Closeup: A losing strategy

Casey Stengel after becoming manager of the Mets famously declared: “Can’t anybody here play this game?”

That was 1962, and the Mets were on their way to losing 120 games out of 162 that season.

Indeed, Jimmy Breslin wrote a book titled, “Can’t Anybody Here Play This Game? The Improbable Saga of the New York Mets First Year.” In its introduction, Bill Veeck, the owner of several major league baseball teams, said the book would be “preserving for all time a remarkable tale of ineptitude, mediocrity and abject failure.”

PSEG is being lambasted for its performance in the Tropical Storm Isaias saga of this month. Some 420,000 customers lost electric power. And it took two weeks for full restoration!

Investigations are now underway, including probes by the New York State attorney general, the Department of Public Service and the State Legislature.

There is no question that the communications system of PSEG broke down. Many people couldn’t get through to the utility to find out what was happening.

Still, for an electric utility to deal with the outages caused by a very severe storm hitting Long Island  is a “game” no utility can “play” and win.

Long Island is the most populous island in the United States. Relatively lightly-populated Shelter Island breaks from that intensity of population. 

A large storm hitting Long Island with its near dependence on transmitting electricity through lines on poles, and with tens of thousands of trees, will mean outages. And with climate change we need to expect more frequent and more severe storms and widescale outages.

The solution: underground electric lines.

I wrote a book back in 1985 when the Long Island Lighting Company was the utility here. On its cover was a photo of a LILCO pole with the pole and its lines tilted at a 45-degree angle after Hurricane Gloria hit that year. (The book, “Power Crazy,” was about LILCO’s proposed Shoreham nuclear power plant and its scheme to build seven to 11 nuclear plants on Long Island.)

The book starts with Hurricane Gloria and a LILCO electric outage that caused 700,000 customers to lose electricity, most for more than a week. But service to 96% of telephone customers on Long Island was not interrupted, I noted on page 1.

I quoted New York Telephone spokesperson Bruce W. Reisman telling me how the company “began placing cable underground wherever feasible in the early 1970s … Cost studies clearly indicated to us that it would simply be less costly for us over the long term to place much of our telephone cables underground. It is generally less expensive to maintain a telephone plant when it is underground. This is because underground facilities are less likely to be damaged by falling trees or branches, high winds, ice storms, etc … The majority of our telephone cables on Long Island (69 percent) is now underground. This appears to have benefited us during Hurricane Gloria. Despite the hurricane, we were able to maintain telephone service for about 96 percent of our more than one million Long Island customers.”

LILCO was replaced by the Long Island Power Authority, which initially had its electric service run by KeySpan, which was taken over by National Grid — and then Superstorm Sandy struck in 2012. National Grid was blasted for the outages Sandy caused. Gov. Andrew Cuomo arranged for National Grid to be replaced by PSEG.

In 2012, writing this column about the need for underground lines, I quoted then Suffolk Legislator Jay Schneiderman (now Southampton Town supervisor) saying that on Long Island there should be ‘undergrounding piece-by-piece — especially in areas which, historically, overhead lines haven’t made it in storms.”

Nationally, the call for undergrounding has increased. Last year, an article on T&D World, a website for utilities, was headlined: “It’s Time for Utilities to Reconsider Undergrounding Power Lines.” It stated that “climate change is unquestionably generating intense, costly storms … a hard fact that utilities must confront.” It said “most utilities opt not to bury power lines due to cost. But leaving so much of our power infrastructure exposed to environmental assault may not be worth the short-term cost savings.”

Undergrounding electric lines is more expensive than stringing lines on poles. But we must consider the huge costs of post-hurricane, post-storm electric restorations — happening over and over again.

We must fully recognize, too, the terrible hardships these extended outages cause people. With lines underground the vital “game” of preserving electric service can be won.