7 On Your Side Investigates: ConEd changed plan to bury lines prior to March storms

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Reporter Jim Hoffer has all the details.

When two back-to-back late winter storms hit Westchester County in March, they did more damage to Con Edison's overhead electrical system than any storm since Superstorm Sandy.

Con Ed's own report filed days ago with the Public Service Commission shows 210,000 customers lost power for days, and at the height of the outages, one resident demanded to know why the utility couldn't bury the electrical lines to reduce the threat of downed wires.

It prompted a 7 On Your Side Investigation into Con Ed's Storm Protection Plan, which we learned proposed spending $200 million to underground 30 miles of overhead electrical wires as a way to reduce the overall frequency of outages.

Con Ed was granted a rate hike, in part to help pay for the cost of burying the cable. But in the wake of those huge March outages, Con Edison told 7 On Your Side that they've only spent $30 million to underground just 4 miles of cable.

The utility has essentially changed its storm hardening policy away from putting lines underground, to installing stronger, more storm resistant poles and wires.

"Undergrounding an overhead system is really exorbitant for customers," Con Ed Spokesman Michael Clendenin said. "You're talking billions of dollars, up to $6 million per mile."

But Westchester County Executive George Latimer says Con Ed has done a bait and switch on its customers.

"You can't say that you're going to something, not do it, and then point to an alternate strategy, and in the meantime you have a loss of power that's been experienced by people on a regular basis," he said. "What is expensive is one factor, but also what protects the residents is also a factor. And that should be discussed publicly."

Latimer, still angry about the long duration of outages for county residents, took it a step further.

"You got the money from the rate payers, you didn't lay out that capital, why?" he said. "Explain every dollar and show how it fit into play."

Con Ed says they did spend the $200 million, but instead of burying lines, they installed 5,000 thousand wind resistant poles and miles of stronger cable, plus automatic isolation devices to isolate outages.

"The money was used to develop a system, a new hardening plan, that did protect customers from more outages than we would have seen," Clendenin said. "In the March storms, we had 66,000 fewer outages than we might have had we done nothing."

But some wonder if they had moved forward with the 30 miles of underground lines, would there have been even fewer outages?

"There are no easy answers," Clendenin said. "If it were underground, it also would have come at an exorbitant cost to customers in their rates."

Latimer says the shift in storm hardening strategy deserves serious debate and scrutiny by the public.

"If you're going to assert that there's a better way to do it more cost efficiently, then you better make that case before the public," he said. "Not just assume that that's the case, and then change the plans that you were granted when you were granted a rate increase."

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