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Lesniak Wants to Lay Down the Law to Utilities: 'Never Again'

Tom Johnson | November 28, 2012

Senator's bill calls for stormproofed substations, widely deployed smart meters, to prevent the outages that followed Sandy.

sandy power lines

Its most prominent proponent calls it the "Never Again Campaign", a curious choice of words given that one of the most trusted tenets in Trenton shared by lobbyists and politicians alike is: “Never say 'never.'’’

Nonetheless, the Legislature may soon move a bill that would require the state’s electric utilities to make significant improvements to the power grid in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, according to a veteran lawmaker.

The bill's goal is to prevent the type of widespread outages in the wake of the storm, which left more than two million customers without power, some of which (on the state’s barrier islands) have yet to get their lights on.

Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D-Union) said yesterday he hopes to introduce the bill early next month, prior to a meeting when utility executives are expected to appear before a Senate panel, which is exploring what steps the state needs to take to respond to the worst storm ever to land in New Jersey.

His bill will include measures aimed at ensuring utilities restore power more quickly during major storms. This includes requiring smart meters to be installed in homes and businesses, which will afford utilities almost instant notification of where and when customers have lost power. A record 2.7 million people were left in the dark following the hurricane, and a nor’easter, which hit the state about a week later.

During Sandy, as in past majors storms, the utilities came under criticism for providing inaccurate information -- none at all -- about when and where power would be restored. For instance, in Brick Township, Jersey Central Power & Light called local officials to inquire if an elementary school had power or not, according to Stephen Acropolis, the community’s mayor.

An even bigger priority, Lesniak said, is to make utility substations and transfer stations stormproof by fortifying them against flooding, elevating them, or moving them to new locations.

In last month’s storm, 58 substations were knocked offline, more than four times the number that flooded during Hurricane Irene. If a substation lose powers, it can cause outages for tens of thousands of customers, far more than those who lose electricity when a tree takes out a local distribution line.

Both of those issues also are expected to be the focus of upcoming hearings on the storm held by the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities, which oversees the state’s electric companies. In the past, the agency has shied away from smart meters, in part because of the possible impact on charges to customers, who typically pay among the highest energy bills in the country.

In its monthly meeting last week, BPU President Bob Hanna vowed to weigh the costs and benefits of improving the utilities’ infrastructure during hearings to be held around the state. “

He also issued a prediction. “Extreme weather is a fact of life. It’s going to continue.’’

Lesniak conceded that the cost of upgrading the utilities' infrastructure is likely to cost more than $1 billion, but argued that the expense, primarily driven by the substation issue, could be spread out over a longer period of time, easing the impact on ratepayers.

He projected that installing smart meters could cost families about $2 per year, if spread out over a long period. Even the more expensive cost of upgrading substations, Lesniak argued, would be supported by most.

“I don’t think too many people would reject it if the cost is reasonable and it makes the power grid more secure,’’ he said.

Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex) voiced similar sentiments at a Senate hearing on the storm in Toms River on Monday. “We have to assess what infrastructure we should look at, including smart meters,’’ she said.

Beyond smart meters and preventing substations from being flooded, Lesniak said he also would like to see a more aggressive tree pruning and removal program to avert possible outages. The issue is one of the more controversial programs pushed by the BPU, primarily because local towns and residents complain vigorously when old trees are cut back.

Lesniak also has sent a letter to the top executives of the state’s three biggest electric utilities, urging them to do a needs assessment and cost estimate to achieve what he has proposed.

In the letter, the senator noted millions were left without power following the storm. “This is unacceptable,’’ he wrote. “Our power delivery system is from the horse and buggy days and needs a comprehensive upgrade to protect the quality of life of our residents.’’

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