At one point or another, more than 800,000 customers of Public Service Electric & Gas (PSE&G) were left without electricity in the wake of Hurricane Irene, slightly more than any of the other three utilities serving New Jersey.
Yet when the state Board of Public Utilities (BPU) convened a public hearing into the outages, the first to be held in the franchise territory of the state's largest electric and gas utility, only two people showed up. One was the coordinator of the Office of Emergency Management in Lambertville, who was there to suggest ways to remedy storm problems affecting customers of Jersey Central Power & Light (JCP&L). The other was a customer of JCP&L who wanted to question its response to the emergency.
That sort of crystallizes the problems facing New Jersey's second largest utility, which serves more than 1 million customers. Even when the agency sought to get comments from the public about what went right and what went wrong with the four electric utilities serving customers, it only heard from someone with issues about JCP&L.
Several dozen people showed up at the previous two hearings in JCP&L's territory to complain about the utility's response to the record storm—lack of communication, lack of coordination, and lack of resources to deal with power outages affecting 800,000 customers, some of whom were left without electricity for six days.
BPU President Lee Solomon was judicious in his comments reflecting on why JCP&L seems to be attracting the most attention from angry customers.
"Clearly, most of the flooding and long-term storm damage occurred in JCP&L's territory," said Solomon, during a break in the hearing. "It also would seem some of the issues, particularly with communication, occurred most frequently with JCP&L."
Solomon ruled out drawing any conclusions from the three hearings, saying the commissioners wanted to continue to hear from the public on what steps could be adopted to minimize problems when future storms hit New Jersey, a sort of "best practices" that utilities would be required to follow to lessen customers' inconvenience.
Dave Burd, coordinator of the Lambertville Office of Emergency Management, suggested a number of policy changes, including requiring utilities to give municipalities daily updates of power outages within their communities. But he also proposed that a utility be required to implement a remote system for restoring power to areas where it has shut off electricity because of expected flooding. In the past eight years, Lambertville has endured five major flooding events, Burd said.
Solomon said the agency will have to decide whether to adopt a "best practices" regime for the state's utilities, a decision that ultimately would lead to a new proceeding before the board.
Asked why PSE&G is not subject to the same complaints leveled at JCP&L, Karen Johnson, a spokeswoman for the utility, said, "I think people recognize it was a difficult storm and we put every available resource, including out-of-state crews to trying to get customers back to power in a timely manner."
Roughly one-third of the utility's customers lost power at one point, the worst storm in the company's history. Approximately 70 percent were restored within 48 hours, according to the utility, and the bulk of the customers were restored within four days, according to BPU officials.