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Garden State Topic: Rebuilding Stronger and Better

Along with superstorm Sandy's hard lessons comes the challenge to move beyond the status quo and reinvent our energy future.

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In wreaking devastation across New Jersey, superstorm Sandy challenged us more than any other natural disaster in PSEG’s 109-year history. We have faced many daunting storms before, but Sandy exceeded them all in size and destructive fury. Over a two-week period our employees, assisted by thousands of workers from 24 states and Canada, made more than 2.1 million electric service restorations -- a record for any utility in the country. About 48,000 trees had to be removed or trimmed and 2,400 utility poles repaired or replaced.

On top of this, Sandy left us with a massive rebuilding task. We estimate the costs of restoring our distribution and transmission system at $250 million to $300 million as a result of Sandy’s blow and the subsequent Nor’easter. However, this does not include the costs of damage to some of our electric-generating facilities, or the costs of replacing life-shortened equipment down the road.

We have begun to take a hard look at Sandy’s lessons and how we can best prepare for future storms, and otherwise improve our responsiveness so as to better serve all of our customers. It will not be adequate merely to rebuild our infrastructure as it was, but rather with a view to strengthening resilience and sustainability.

Where to go from here? Ensuring safe, reliable, economic and green energy over the long term is the vision that motivates the dedicated men and women of PSEG. With that vision in mind, many issues need to be considered on New Jersey’s path to a sustainable energy future. Here are seven of those issues.

First, energy efficiency is important regardless of what else we do. Energy efficiency improvements not only help the environment, but reduce utility bills and strengthen economic competitiveness. Yet consumers and businesses pass up countless energy efficiency investments every day because they have other priorities. Utilities can help overcome barriers to energy efficiency, as we have been doing through a highly successful program that is helping many New Jersey hospitals save millions of dollars in energy costs per year.

Second, there are green energy solutions that have costs but also deliver substantial benefits, including jobs and cleaner air. New Jersey has been a leading location for solar energy development. Finding ways to continue this leadership at a manageable pace would reap a growing harvest of green energy and jobs. We have been working to do this by installing thousands of solar panels on landfills, rooftops, and other underutilized space, and also by making financing more readily available for solar projects.

Third, the time is ripe for a serious look at smarter systems. We have sophisticated high-voltage networks, but still can’t remotely tell if a tree has fallen on a wire between the street and a customer’s house. There is increasing evidence that where it has been deployed, smart grid technology can make a substantial difference -- helping identify outages, isolate and fix problems more efficiently, and keep customers up-to-date with pertinent information.

Fourth, building more redundancy into our distribution system can be a key to providing additional layers of protection. This could involve configuring or designing more circuits able to feed customers from multiple directions, or other steps such as building new, critical facilities on higher ground. Currently, we are building a new substation inland in Newark.

Fifth, hardening up storm barriers and floodgates should be part of the agenda, as well. Much of our existing infrastructure was originally developed in the same areas as our ports, rivers, and cities where most people lived and commercial activity was concentrated. This made sense at the time, but many systems will need to be reinforced to ensure survivability.

Sixth, undergrounding is an option that many people have raised in regard to electric infrastructure, but it is very expensive and, moreover, no panacea. Restoring underground systems following a flood or other disaster can be an extremely costly and complex process. In certain circumstances, undergrounding may be one of various options to consider, but always with a close eye on cost vs. benefit.

Seventh, and finally, there is the proven practice of methodical tree trimming, which has long been one of our most important activities from a safety and reliability standpoint. Now, after Sandy, there may be more public understanding about the benefits of aggressive tree trimming on a regular basis, which we will continue to emphasize.

This hardly exhausts the list of possible initiatives or ideas worth exploring. Many options will require substantial investments. We look forward to a good, ongoing dialogue with all the stakeholders on the issues.

As New Jersey’s oldest and largest utility, we have been dedicated to helping our Garden State achieve important goals for more than 100 years. PSEG stands ready to do our part in helping New Jersey continue to rebuild from superstorm Sandy, in ways that not only address immediate needs but provide long-lasting benefits to the customers and communities we serve -- for a brighter, more sustainable future.

Ralph Izzo is chairman and CEO of PSEG.

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