ITHACA, N.Y.—Mary Lou Vanburen is going to be 93 in February. She lives alone on Buck Hill Road in the Town of Hector, a rural community that has been plagued by chronic power outages that are largely the result of deeply needed tree trimming — outages that put her well-being at risk over the summer.
It was July 13, 2021, 9 p.m. when the power went out. Vanburen didn’t have a flashlight on hand.
“You wouldn’t believe how dark it can get out here,” Vanburen said.
While she went looking for a light, Vanburen tripped and fell. She’s still not sure on what.
“Fortunately, I didn’t break anything, and I didn’t hit my head,” she said. “So I’m just glad for all that.”
But she was unable to get up. Vanburen does wear a medical alert device, but as the night dragged on, it became clear that the signal wasn’t reaching anyone and that help was not on its way, even after the power came back on around 1 a.m.
“I just had to say to myself, I’ll have to wait ‘til morning.”
Luckily, Vanburen had a repair scheduled in the morning. When the repairman arrived at her house, she was soon whisked to the hospital where she spent a week recovering, then another three weeks in a rehab center. Her fall, coupled with an entire night spent laying injured on the floor, produced bruising to her hands, legs, hips and shoulders.
It took until early October, about three months later, before she was able to walk around confidently again. She’s back at home now, but a physical therapist still continues to visit her.
“I’m on the older side, and so I didn’t recover that quickly,” Vanburen said. “And I guess I’ll never be quite recovered, but I’m getting around now.”
Vanburen doesn’t talk about her fall with any melodramatic flourish. A friend of hers described Vanburen as someone with “deep inner resources.”
“I just settled down on the rug in the dining room and thought, well, I’ll just lay here and take a rest,” said Vanburen, adding matter-of-factly, “It was a long night.”
But she finds the power outages intolerable and wants attention brought to the issue, and so do her neighbors. Fed up with suffering from poor electric service, affected residents and businesses formed an ad hoc group, dubbing it “Outage Outrage,” and it would appear that the group finally has the attention of their electric utility provider, New York State Electric and Gas Corporation (NYSEG).
“The people that will say ‘Just light a candle’ don’t really get it.”
On Dec. 1 at the Mecklenburg Volunteer Fire Company, Outage Outrage, elected officials and members of the public were met by representatives from NYSEG, including a surprise appearance from the Company’s CEO and President Carl Taylor.
Residents in the Town of Hector, particularly around the Hamlet of Mecklenburg, say they have been reporting high numbers of outages to NYSEG for years. Five members of Outage Outrage — which has 35 members listed in its Facebook group — supplied The Ithaca Voice with their own counts of the outages they’ve seen in 2021, each recording between 10 and 12 for their individual households, most lasting between three and five hours by their own account.
“It just got to the point where we said this is no longer acceptable,” said Susanne Lipari, the administrator of the Outage Outrage Facebook group. Lipari said she recorded 16 outages in 2018 and at least 10 every year since for her home in the Hamlet of Alpine.
“It takes a while for people to get so fed up that they’ll take action,” Lipari said.
Feeling like filing reports wasn’t getting them anywhere, in mid-November, Outage Outrage decided to phone bank the Public Service Commission (PSC), the regulatory body that oversees NYSEG and all electric, gas, water and telecommunication industries in New York. The PSC’s regulatory oversight requires utilities to provide scrupulous filings of company activity; the PSC is able to issue fines to utilities it oversees; and, perhaps most notably, determine rates these companies are able to charge their customers.
The move to inundate the PSC with phone calls paid off.
Almost 30 people had an audience with the NYSEG’s CEO and six other company representatives on Dec. 1. Town of Hector Supervisor Alvine White, and State Senator Tom O’Mara’s Communication Relations Officer Mike Rogers also attended. The meeting began with residents sharing personal stories of how the outages have affected them, and of the investments they’ve had to make in anticipation of them.
Homeowners detailed that when the power goes out in the rural town of Hector, they lose the ability to run water. Many said they need sump pumps running in their basements for risk of flooding during rain storms which, unfortunately, often coincide with outage events. When they lose electricity, they risk having to contend with water damage in their basements.
People talked about how they’ve made investments into generators to keep the lights on and water running, as well as pellet stoves for homeowners who use electricity to heat their homes.
Much of the Town of Hector is a deadzone, so unless a homeowner has retained a landline, internet access and phone calls will have to wait until the power turns back on.
One resident said, “It’s almost like glorified camping. It really is.”
Vanburen was unable to attend that meeting, but Lipari — who’s a friend of hers — read a letter describing what had happened at her request. Lipari also shared the story of another resident who came home with a newborn baby only to find the power was out. It was the dead of winter, and Lipari said this woman and her young family had to stay in a hotel for three days while they waited for their power to be restored.
“The people that will say, ‘Just light a candle’ don’t really get it,” Lipari said.
Wide Awake Bakery, located on Buck Hill Road, has seen its business disrupted as a result of the outages. Stefen Senders, one of the owners of the business, was not able to attend the community meeting, but wrote to The Ithaca Voice about the difficult position persistent outages have put the bakery in.
“When the power goes out, particularly in the summer, we stand to lose hundreds of loaves fermenting in our cooler,” wrote Senders.
“We have gerryrigged generators and have baked through the night,” he said, adding that installing full generator capacity is beyond what the bakery can afford, but that it’s an option he’s felt he’s had to consider.
The risk of an outage, Senders wrote, “Keeps us up too late too often.”
“It’s not acceptable to have this many outages.”
NYSEG is a predominantly rural utility provider, serving around 899,000 electric customers in upstate New York. Central New York and the Adirondacks comprise much of its service area. Former farmland re-wilding, and dying ash trees brought on by the invasive emerald ash borer threaten NYSEG’s distribution circuits. But so do years of below–industry–standard circuit maintenance.
A “circuit” is basically the path through which electricity flows to customers from a substation. It’s the wires hung from poles along the road. The industry standard for a “full cycle trim” of trees along a circuit is every five years. The particular circuit that supplies power to much of the Town of Hector is known as Burdett Meck 508.
Due to security concerns, NYSEG does not make maps of circuits publicly available, but Burdett Meck 508 runs along Route 79, between NY State Route 327 in the Town of Enfield, and NY State Route 414 near Seneca Lake in the Town of Hector. The circuit branches off of this main line and delivers power to most of the Town of Hector — though not the Village of Burdett — serving 1,295 customers through 124.7 miles of cable.
NYSEG’s 2020 Annual Reliability Report shows that 63.5% of the interruptions on Burdett Meck 508 were caused by trees; 41.5% of interruptions to the circuit were caused by trees that were in NYSEG’s right-of-way, an area in which NYSEG has a legal precedent that allows it to trim trees around its distribution and transmission corridors, even if they are on private property.
Seemingly due to tree-caused outages, Burdett Meck 508 is the worst performing circuit in NYSEG’s Ithaca Division. According to the Department of Public Service (DPS) — which the PSC is a part of — it is within the worst 5% of NYSEG’s circuits in New York. An action plan to improve its performance has been developed by NYSEG, the results of which will be reviewed by DPS.
During the Dec. 1 meeting, Taylor made a clear effort to relate to the crowd’s frustration, saying, “I live in rural U.S.A. just like you… When our power goes down, I have the same dilemma you do. I understand it.”
“It’s not acceptable to have this many outages,” Taylor said. “It’s just not. We’ve looked at the statistics. We’ve talked about the circuit. It’s not about one wire.”
The PSC primarily relies on two metrics to judge the reliability of a circuit: System Average Interruption Frequency Index (SAIFI), which measures interruption frequency versus total number of customers served for each circuit, and Customer Average Interruption Duration Index (CAIDI), which measures duration of the interruptions. According to the Department of Public Service, Burdett Meck 508 has on average 4.7 outages for every customer on the circuit, with each outage lasting an average of 2.99 hours for each customer.
NYSEG’s overall performance in the state averaged about 1.37 outages per customer with an average duration of 1.98 hours, excluding outages caused by “major storms.” Including “major storms,” NYSEG’s customers experienced an average of 2.08 outages, lasting 5.41 hours on average.
NYSEG told attendees on Dec. 1 that efforts to address the problem are around the corner. A full circuit trim is on its way for Burdett Meck 508, with a scheduled start date of Jan. 23, 2022, and completion date of March 31, 2022, although NYSEG emphasized that it will likely be completed before then.
When asked when the last time Burdett Meck 508 had received a full cycle trim, Taylor did not specify.
He said performing a full cycle trim every five years is industry best practice but added, “We at NYSEG have never been afforded enough money to do that. And, quite honestly, we’re a very rural company, as you know, and it’s very expensive to do tree trimming.”
Taylor emphasized the results of NYSEG’s 2019 Rate Case with the PSC, which saw the budget for the utility’s vegetation management program boosted from around $30 million to approximately $57.2 million. Approximately $17.2 million of the $27.2 million increase is meant for NYSEG to “reclaim circuits” that haven’t been trimmed in over five years — like Burdett Meck 508 — and the other $10 million is for a Danger Tree Program.
It’s a thorny subject, but NYSEG has been arguing consistently over the years for rate increases to better fund its vegetation management programs. However, in 2009 and 2015 DPS slapped them with fines for coming up short on their tree trimming goals. In their 2019 Rate Case, NYSEG agreed to hire an independent contractor with the consultation of DPS staff. The contractor will oversee and review the utility’s vegetation management programs.
The appearance of NYSEG’s CEO and the strong show of representation from the company seemed to be deeply appreciated by Outage Outrage and the people present at the Dec. 1 meeting. Senator O’Mara felt so, too, saying that he will be paying attention to the work that NYSEG does, but that their appearance in Mecklenburg tells him that they are taking the outages seriously.
Toward the end of the meeting, Taylor addressed the crowd with a promise that NYSEG will be in contact with them as their service is remedied.
“We’re gonna fix it,” Taylor said. “What we will commit to you is not only that we will talk to you today, but we’ll be back. I’ll make sure that the team comes back, and we talk about what we have done.”