Customers Getting Answers to Outage Problems from Their Utilities

Tom Johnson | September 15, 2011 | Energy & Environment
Stage agency to investigate how four electric utilities responded to blackouts in the wake of Hurricane Irene

Credit: Morristown Green/Kevin Coughlin
Hurricane Irene Flood
Jersey Central Power & Light is once again under the gun.

The state is launching a series of hearings into how well New Jersey’s four electric utilities responded to power outages that left more than a million people and businesses without lights in the wake of Hurricane Irene.

The first two of the hearings, expected ever since Gov. Chris Christie criticized the performance of some utilities after the storm, will be held in Manalapan and Morris Plains. Both are served by Jersey Central Power & Light (JCP&L), the target of most complaints from customers who waited up to eight days to have power restored.

The hearings cast an unwelcome light on JCP&L, the state’s second largest utility, with more than 1 million customers. In 2003, a slow response to a string of outages at the Jersey Shore during the Fourth of July led the Board of Public Utilities (BPU) to temporarily reduce the utility’s rate of return after an investigation found flaws in its performance.

The utility also was recently the subject of an extensive audit by Schumaker & Co., which recommended, among other things, that the company complete deferred tree trimming on its distribution corridors by the end of 2011.

In addition, the audit noted that the regulatory service standards reported to the BPU — the average time to reach a customer service representative — have all deteriorated in recent years.

Hearings Scheduled

The BPU announced yesterday it would hold hearings on September 26 and 27. A spokesman said the first sessions will be held in JCP&L’s territory, while additional meetings will focus on the other three electric utilities: Public Service Electric & Gas, (PSE&G), Atlantic City Electric and Rockland Electric.

Two-thirds of JCP&L customers lost power at some point following Hurricane Irene, which hit New Jersey early Sunday morning. By the following Friday, 27,000 customers were still without power, nearly all in the company’s franchise territory.

That led to the utility being singled out by Christie as he toured New Jersey in the wake of the disaster. “The JCP&L numbers are lagging significantly behind other companies,” the governor said at one point. “I want an explanation for that.”

Scott Surgeoner, a spokesman for Akron-based FirstEnergy, the owner of JCP&L, said the utility was looking forward to the opportunity to participate in the hearings.

Surgeoner noted that Hurricane Irene was the first storm to make landfall in New Jersey since 1904, a fact that caused significant and widespread damage throughout its 13-county territory. He said the company had more than 4,500 utility and contractors working on restoring service, and that 70 percent of nearly 700,000 customers had service restored within 48 hours.

Taking Calls

In responding to the storm, JCP&L replaced 400 utility poles, pulled 45 miles of new conductor wire, and responded to 45,000 calls involving trouble or damage to its infrastructure, Surgeoner said. “Clearly, we understand our customers’ frustration,” he added.

The BPU, the state agency with oversight of the state’s gas and electric utilities, already has sent out letters to the presidents of the four utilities, requesting information on all aspects of the planning for and response to the hurricane, according to Greg Reinert, a spokesman for the board.

“The clear majority of all the complaints came from JCP&L customers,” Reinert said.

Besides looking for utility preparations, Reinert said the agency was hoping to get input from the public, mayors and other elected officials. In addition to the hearings, the board, along with the New Jersey State League of Municipalities will speak with local mayors next week in a closed meeting to discuss ways to improve communication between the utility and local officials, according to Reinert.

Approximately 1.5 million customers in New Jersey lost power in the storm, said state officials.

“It’s obviously going to take some time, but we want to find a way to improve communications,” Reinert said.
The first hearing is scheduled in Manapalan at the Monnmouth County Library headquarters, from 4 p.m. till 7 p.m.

This isn’t the only legislative hearing on the aftermath of Hurricane Irene in New Jersey. The Joint Committee on the Public Schools is holding a special meeting in Newark next Tuesday for state and local officials to discuss how schools responded. More than a dozen districts were forced to at least temporarily close buildings to deal with the storm’s damage.

Maybe the most notorious incident was the closing of the Wilson Avenue School in Newark, where 800 students at the last minute were told they would need to bused elsewhere as workers deal with pervasive mold and other water damage in the 130-year-old building. The Schools Development Authority (SDA) has been partly blamed for the problems, and its executive director, Marc Larkins, is expected to attend the committee meeting.