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JCP&L Gets Hammered by Customers, Local Officials, BPU

All four utilities draw sharp criticism for leaving customers in the dark -- literally and figuratively.

"An embarrassment." "Dreadful." "Abysmal." Those were some of the sentiments expressed by customers of Jersey Central Power & Light, as a state agency launched hearings yesterday into how the utility, and others, responded to the cataclysm known as Hurricane Sandy.

For many local officials, however, the most jarring thing about the superstorm, which left 1.3 million customers of JCP&L without power, was that they did not see much improvement from previous major storms -- Hurricane Irene last summer and a rare October snowstorm on the eve of Halloween in 2011.

Perhaps most of all, the utility was faulted for failing to communicate accurate and timely information about when and where its customers, nearly 90 percent of whom lost power during the hurricane, would see the lights come back on, local and state officials said.

New Jersey Board of Public Utilities President Robert Hanna, who gave all four of the state’s electric utilities a “failing’’ grade in communicating with customers and local officials earlier this week, agreed. “This, in my view, needs great, great improvement,’’ Hanna said at the public hearing in Basking Ridge.

Even Don Lynch, president of JCP&L, conceded as much. “I hear you loud and clear about providing more detailed communication,’’ Lynch said, before hearing a torrent of criticism from local officials and residents about the utility not providing more timely information about restoration efforts.

“The communication from JCP&L, Mr. Lynch, was abysmal,’’ said Scott Spitzer, a committeeman in Bernards Township. "As a CEO, you should be embarrassed at the responsiveness of your communications.’’

He and others criticized the utility for its slow response in restoring power to the township. Ten neighborhoods were landlocked for 10 days because of downed trees blocking the roads. Schools were without power for 13 days. The police station had no power for more than a week.

“This is just not acceptable,’’ said Carolyn Gaziano, the deputy mayor of the township.

One of the biggest frustrations voiced at the meeting was the inability to clear local roads so residents could go back and forth from their homes to their businesses easily. Several officials, including Morristown Mayor Peter Mancuso suggested the state and utility set up a program to teach Department of Public Works employees to clear trees -- even when downed electricity wires are entangled.

Others complained that the more than 13,000 out-of-state utility workers called in under mutual assistance programs to help restore power often were idle, waiting for instructions on where to go to bring the lights back on.

“That’s unacceptable, ‘’ said Scott Gallopo, a Montville Township committeeman. “My confidence in getting this addressed is zero.’’

That sentiment reflected past failures of JCP&L to quickly to respond to storm outages, a history that has led the BPU to launch a proceeding to investigate whether the utility is plowing more of its profits into its parent, FirstEnergy Corp., based in Akron Ohio, than in maintaining the reliability of its system.

Gallopo suggested future hearings should not only focus on JCP&L, but also the BPU and whether it is holding the utility accountable for the plans it puts in place to make its electrical system more reliable.

The hearings are expected to continue later this week in the territory of the state’s smallest electric utility, Rockland Electric.

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