Senate Committee Holds Hurricane-Response Bill — for Now

Tom Johnson | January 24, 2012 | Energy & Environment
Questions arise as to whether the BPU is already working on emergency response guidelines

The legislature appears ready to overhaul how New Jersey’s four electric utilities respond to widespread power outages, such as those that occurred last summer when a hurricane made landfall in the state, leaving nearly 2 million customers without power.

But not just yet.

The Senate Economic Growth Committee yesterday held a bill (S-467) that would direct the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities to establish a set of standards for emergency preparation and restoration of service, which every investor-owned utility must follow.

State Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D-Union), the chairman of the panel, said the committee deferred action on the bill at the request of the New Jersey Utilities Association, which noted that the BPU is already is looking into the issue. Lesniak said the committee would not hold up the bill “indefinitely.’’

The widespread outages, which at its peak affected 1 million customers of the four electric utilities, triggered angry protests from customers, local officials, and even Gov. Chris Christie. The governor, whose home in Mendham was among hundreds of thousands to lose power during a rare October snowstorm, ordered the agency to assess the utilities’ performance.

In a preliminary report issued last December, the BPU recommended immediate action by the four utilities to improve communications, including the addition of staff during storms to handle expected calls, the use of social media to inform affected customers, and the creation of a full communications plan approved by the agency in advance.

Those recommendations addressed some of the most frequent complaints voiced by customers and local officials during a series of hearings on the Hurricane Irene outages — that they could not reach utility executives to get information about when power would be restored and when they did, it often was misleading or wrong.

By far, most of the criticism was leveled at Jersey Central Power & Light, the state’s second biggest electric utility, with about 1 million customers. Some of its customers were left without power for up to eight days, according to the preliminary report, which largely focused on that utility.

The agency also is in the process of hiring a consultant to help it draw up “best management practices’’ for utilities to follow when a big storm is expected to lead to widespread outages. Greg Reinert, a spokesman for BPU, said the agency expects to hire the consultant next month.

The legislation held by the Senate committee would require the agency to establish practices that are “intended to serve as a minimum set of best practices that every utility in the state should follow with regard to power outages.” It also carries with it a heavy stick: failure to meet the standards could lead to fines of up to $10,000 per day, according to the bill, which is sponsored by state Sen. Shirley Turner (D-Mercer).

The bill also requires every utility to file an emergency response plan with the board, which would serve as an official plan for each utility in the event of a major power outage.

A call to the New Jersey Utilities Association for their reaction to the bill was not returned.