Editorial: Got juice?

THE TOMATOES IN MY BACKYARD will grow better next year after last month’s snows. The two separate storms only a day or so apart brought down big limbs on one of our maples. The sky suddenly appeared overhead, which means that along with a lengthier growing season, I won’t be mowing a lawn next summer of moss, mushrooms and creepy splotches of mold.

The power flickered when the snow covered the leaves, most of which had yet to fall in the Village of Chatham, but that and the cleanup of branches were the extent of the inconvenience there. Many of our neighbors to the south and east, including residents of Ancram, Copake, Gallatin and Taghkanic didn’t escape so easily. Power was out in Ancram for four days or more. And the news was full of reports of the folks in Connecticut, some of whom had no electric service for weeks.

The difference seemed due in part to the whims of the weather. But there were clearly differences between power company responses, as well. County officials here have filed a complaint with the state Public Service Commission in reaction to hundreds of local Central Hudson Gas and Electric Corporation customers having been left without electric service for so long with no word from the company about when the power would return and no sign of repair crews.

The company serves about 300,000 residential and commercial customers in a region that includes much of Dutchess, Ulster and Green counties, as well as the southern tier of Columbia and parts of several other counties. A company spokesman said Central Hudson did all it could in the face of a storm that caused unprecedented damage to its lines. He said that restoring power required the repair of the main lines first before its crews could move on to the successively more remote branches of the system. He said Central Hudson brought in crews from hundreds of miles away to help put the system back together. Undoubtedly, that’s all true.

But that doesn’t explain why the company couldn’t deliver supplies of clean water and dry ice to powerless customers in Ancram and other nearby locations or why customers who could make calls were told that if they needed water or ice they could travel to Poughkeepsie, where the company has its headquarters. Considering the cost of driving to Poughkeepsie and back, it’s odd the company didn’t advise its customers here to shop for those items at stores in Hudson, which is closer and served by a different power company.

Central Hudson and its parent company, CH Energy, are small entities compared to some of the power utilities that serve the region, some of which are owned by multinational conglomerates. But Central Hudson listed operating revenues in 2010 of nearly ¾ of a billion dollars. And they couldn’t spare a few bucks to buy a little dry ice for Ancram?

Electric power supply sources have been deregulated in the state for several years, but only one company has permission to deliver electric current to homes in any given geographic area. As the recipient of a government monopoly Central Hudson has an obligation to serve all the customers in its service area, and government has a duty to see that Central Hudson and all other electric utilities have reasonable plans and resources for responding to emergencies.

The state can’t regulate the weather — be grateful for that, they’d tax it if they could — but lawmakers can set standards so that when power does go out local officials will get better information about when power will be restored. The state can also demand that trained crews be available to clean up emergency situations like downed power lines across highways and insist that the companies make provisions to supply their customers with drinking water and dry ice to preserve some perishable food. And if companies don’t comply, they should not escape stiff financial penalties up to and including the loss of their monopoly.

One more thing: considering the number and frequency of unusually nasty storms that have whacked this region in the last few years, wouldn’t it be prudent to require better planning for these events? Lawmakers shouldn’t think of this as punishing Central Hudson or any other power utility that provides a service we all need. It’s simply a matter of acknowledging that no one deserves second-rate service in an emergency, regardless of where they are on the grid.

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