Report on Hurricane Irene Focuses on Jersey Central Power & Light

Preliminary report on outages also calls on all four state utilities to immediately improve communications

The state’s preliminary report on power outages caused by the first hurricane to make landfall in New Jersey since 1903 primarily focuses on the electric utility virtually everyone wants to blame, Jersey Central Power & Light.

So much so that one Board of Public Utility commissioner suggested the state’s second-largest electric utility may have not lived up to previous orders to upgrade restoration service stemming from past outages, an implication that could bode poorly for the company.

In general, though the preliminary report prepared by the staff dealt with the problem that came up most often from issues arising from the hurricane, which left 1.9 million people without power: poor communication between the utilities and local officials and customers about when and where power would be restored.

The preliminary report calls for immediate action by the four electric utilities to improve communications, including the addition of staff during storm events to handle expected calls, the use of social media to inform affected customers, and having a full communications plan approved by the BPU in advance.

Those recommendations, however, probably will take a back seat to further investigations by the board and a special consultant that will examine other issues raised by the length of the outages from Hurricane Irene, which made landfall on August 27 and left some customers without power for up to 8 days.

Among those issues is why it took JCP&L so long to bring outside contractors into the state to help restore its 780,000 customers who lost power. The preliminary report noted that JCP&L failed to secure mutual aid assistance from other utilities, outside contractors and affiliates until August 29, nearly a full day after the other utilities had the crews at work.

Despite having more customers without power (873,000), the state’s largest electric utility, Public Service Electric & Gas, had average customer outages of 48 hours, shorter than those of JCP&L customers, according to the staff report.

Another issue cited by the report was that JCP&L had poor communication with local and state officials in coordinating shutoff of power lines that blocked roads, leading to delays in removing debris knocked down by the storm.

Other complaints lodged against the utility, which is owned by FirstEnergy Corp. of Akron, Ohio, dealt with its reporting of inaccurate restoration times; its extensive tree damage, which the report suggested might be a reflection of its ineffective tree-trimming policies; and an inability to prioritize restoration of customers who rely on well water, and who could not access drinking water without electricity.

After hearing a summary of the report, Commissioner Jeanne Fox questioned whether the utility violated board orders based on a previous investigation stemming from widespread outages in Jersey Shore towns occurring on the Fourth of July weekend several years ago. “We need to make sure they did what they said they were going to do,’’ said Fox, who was president of the agency at the time of the outages.

When those hearings were concluded, the board reduced the utility’ rate of return on its investment in its infrastructure, Fox noted, an outcome that could occur again.

Meanwhile the BPU has decided to initiate a proceeding to look into allegations that the state’s second-largest utility is earning significantly more than what the agency has established as a reasonable return on its investments.

The proceeding was initiated based on a petition filed by the Division of Rate Counsel, which argued that Jersey Central Power & Light is earning a 12.37 percent rate of return, far in excess of the 8.5 percent approved by the state.