To many residents and elected officials in Monmouth County, one word describes the response of Jersey Central Power & Light to Hurricane Irene: lacking. The utility was lacking in communication, lacking in resources, and lacking in preparation.
Those complaints arose time and time again yesterday as the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities (BPU) began a series of hearings into the state's four electric utilities' efforts in restoring power to 1.87 million customers across the state, many of whom struggled without electricity for as long as a week.
The hearings, ordered by Gov. Chris Christie in the wake of widespread anger about how long it took utilities to bring the lights back on could lead to regulatory changes and recommendations to adopt so-called standardized best practices that prevent the same problems from occurring during future storms.
For JCP&L, the state's second largest electric utility with 1 million customers, the hearings turn an unwelcome spotlight on it from the agency -- again. After it was widely criticized by the BPU in 2003 for a series of blackouts on the Fourth of July weekend, the utility was ordered to hire a special consultant to improve its operations. It also took a hit to the bottom line: The agency reduced JCP&L's rate of return on its investment.
At a hearing at the Monmouth County Library headquarters in Manalapan, some local officials and residents urged the agency to hold JCP&L accountable for many of the problems they experienced.
"Somebody failed," Marlboro Mayor John Hornick told the agency, saying 7,500 customers had no power in his community and he could not get any answers from JCP&L. "Somebody has to be held responsible for this."
BPU President Lee Solomon said the commissioners would not make any decisions until all of the hearings are concluded, but promised the review would be comprehensive. "Frankly, we have a whole range of options, including regulatory changes, best practices, right up to, if necessary, sanctions," he told the audience.
Most of the complaints at the hearing focused on the utility's inability to provide information to local officials and residents, and when they did, it often was inaccurate. Holmdel Mayor Pat Impreveduto said residents of his town were receiving calls from JCP&L informing them their power had been restored, when, in fact, the opposite was true.
Ron Morano, a spokesman for JCP&L, said the utility has acknowledged its communication with public officials, local municipalities, and customers needs to be improved. He said the utility was studying some of the suggestions made during the hearing, including sending out e-mail updates to customers with smart phones.
Referring to other complaints, Morano, however, disputed many of the assertions raised during the session, including that the utility failed to prepare for the storm by calling in help from outside the state. "This was not a manpower issue," he said, arguing it was more a matter of the severity of the storm, the first hurricane to hit New Jersey in more than 100 years.
"We had more than 4,000 people on the ground," Morano said.
It wasn't enough for residents, however.
"I don't know how many people they had, but evidently, it was clearly not enough," said Stanley Bowman, a Marlboro resident who lost power for more than three days. "This has got to stop."
Others urged the agency to make sure the cost of restoring the power to the 800,000 customers of JCP&L is not picked up by its customers.
Solomon acknowledged that concern, but noted infrastructure improvements to the utility's system of wires and lines might have prevented such widespread problems. He said the agency faces a balancing act in deciding what infrastructure improvements are necessary to improve reliability and how much of that cost should customers foot.
The hearings will continue in JCP&L's territory in Morristown today, beginning at 4 p.m. at the Morris County Public Safety Training Academy in Morris Plains. Additional hearings are planned in the other electric utility franchise territories.