There are at least three different ways to look at utility regulators. You can view them as allies and partners who make it possible for a utility to function successfully as a regulated monopoly; or as neutral stakeholders who legitimately represent the concerns of ratepayers, local governments and the state itself; or as obstructive adversaries who block a utility’s well-engineered plans to serve its customers at a reasonable profit.
(Whichever way your local regulatory body may appear, we really don’t recommend assuming the third point of view. It might not end well.)
One thing is undeniable. When push comes to shove in a match with the utility regulators, utilities aren’t the heavyweights. So when things go wrong and the politicians order an investigation, things can get pretty ugly.
The damage and difficulties caused by recent storms led one state to order an in-depth investigation into the emergency planning, preparation and restoration practices of all of that state’s Investor Owned Utilities. The investigating Commission became so incensed by its findings that it recommended criminal prosecution of one of the utilities.
Some of the headings in the report’s Table of Contents alone are enough to make you cringe:
- Utility Infrastructure Investment: Need for Better Resiliency
- Utility did not Adequately Prepare for Flood Surge Despite Warnings
- Utility Needs Earlier, More Proactive Public Outreach
- Utility Delayed Damage Assessment
- Utility was Unable to Issue Localized Estimated Restoration Times
- Response to Coastal Flooding was Inadequate
- Crew Allocation Methodology is Ad Hoc
- Utility Experienced Resource Shortages
- Resource Sharing Was Inefficient, Causing Confusion and Disorganization
- Inadequate Liaison Staffing
- Unreliable Technology in Major Storms
- Utility’s Information Systems Fail to Perform as Needed During Emergency Events
- Liaisons Lacked Essential Information to be Meaningful Resources to Local Officials
- Utility Did Not Effectively Coordinate Wires Down with Local Government
- Outage Map was Inaccurate and Suffered Glitches
- Utility Does Not Have a Consistent and Formalized Procedure for Post-Storm Reviews
- Utility’s Benchmarking Efforts Should Be Expanded to Further Evaluate System Improvements
While we have paraphrased the above headings to protect the identities of the utilities involved, who they are is irrelevant. How many utilities could pass through such a gauntlet of public scrutiny unscathed? Could yours? (Our congratulations if none of these apply to you. By the way, let’s talk…)
We are in an age of heightened expectations fueled by the ubiquity of technological capability. It is not uncommon for the average American to hold in the palm of her hand thousands of times more computing power than the Apollo moon launches had at their disposal. Communication via text or voice is mobile, intercontinental and almost instantaneous. If I send a package from Oshkosh to Mongolia, FedEx can tell me exactly where that package is, any time I want to know. Grandparents hold face-to-face conversations with their grand kids hundreds of miles apart.
All this technological power is creating a sense of psychological disequilibrium among utility customers (aka: a state of being PO’d). With such familiarity with technology, consumers can’t help but ask: “Why wasn’t I warned earlier about this outage? Why can’t they tell me when my service will be restored? Why can’t they restore my service in less than 5 days? Why doesn’t their Outage Map work? Why do they keep telling me my power is back on when it isn’t?” When so many ratepayers ask those questions, so do the utility regulators. Too often, the simple answer is lack of funding. In some cases, it’s a legitimate answer, but not always. A hard look at re-engineering processes or reallocating available human resources might have helped the utilities in question, and it might help yours as well.
At least now you have a guide to surviving such scrutiny – hence the checklist above. It might not be complete, but it’s a pretty good start for identifying elements of emergency preparedness and performance that ratepayers and utility regulators kvetch about the most.