Sandy Spurs New Look at Underground Power Lines, Grid Upgrade

Tom Johnson | November 21, 2012 | Energy & Environment, Sandy
State BPU chief warns NJ ratepayers would foot bill for ‘incredibly expensive’ measures

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Hurricane Sandy has prompted utility regulators to take a new look at measures New Jersey has shied away from in the past – including replacing some above-ground power lines with underground systems — largely because of the huge price tag that likely would jack up electric rates for consumers.

In the next few months, the state Board of Public Utilities, however, plans to explore the possibility of “selective’’ burying of underground lines. It also will examine whether to require utilities to create a “smarter” power grid, a step some say would lead to faster restoration of power in the wake of powerful storms like Sandy.

Neither of those options would be cheap. In the past, for instance, the BPU has balked at allowing Public Service Electric & Gas, the state’s largest utility, to take steps toward creating a “smart” grid, primarily because of projected costs running into hundreds of millions of dollars.

The reassessment, which will include public hearings around the state, comes in the wake of a hurricane which left a record 2.7 million customers without power, some for as long as 14 days. On the hard-hit barrier islands along the Jersey Shore, many are still without any electricity or gas service, some not to be restored until next month.

Beyond burying overhead power lines and creating a smarter grid, the state agency also plans to determine what needs to be done to relocate, elevate or harden electric utility substations and switching stations.

All told, Hurricane Sandy flooded 58 utility substations, more than four times the number flooded during Hurricane Irene, according to BPU President Bob Hanna. When those substations are knocked out of service, tens of thousands of customers lose power.

“We’re going to think very seriously about moving substations or elevating them,’’ Hanna said at the first public meeting of the BPU since Sandy made landfall on Oct. 29 near Atlantic City. “It happened once; it can’t happen again.’’

Actually, it already occurred during Hurricane Irene, when 14 utility substations in low-lying areas were flooded, leading to widespread outages.

In talking about how the state should respond in the aftermath of Sandy, which claimed the lives of 37 New Jerseyans, Hanna detailed a range of other issues which need to be addressed — from improving communication from electric utilities to local officials to better vegetation-management practices to reduce outages caused by falling tree limbs.

“The board has much work to do,’’ Hanna conceded.

One of the big issues facing the state is weighing the costs and benefits of improving the utility infrastructure to respond more quickly to storms like Sandy, which will almost certainly happen again, he said.

“Extreme weather is a fact of life’’ he said. “It’s going to continue to occur.’’

Hanna’s fellow BPU commissioner, Jeanne Fox, echoed those comments.

“I’m hoping and praying that Sandy is a wakeup call,’’ said Fox, while saying the hurricane was not directly a result of global climate change.

Burying power lines would be “incredibly expensive,’’ Hanna said, adding that it would cost “billions of dollars’’ if the state tried to bury all overhead lines in New Jersey, a process that would involve ripping up most roads and front lawns.

He suggested the state needs to examine selective burying of underground lines after a detailed cost-and-benefit analysis. Placing substation feeder cables might be one option, he added.

Creating a “smarter” grid would also result in additional costs for ratepayers, but Hanna noted that in Delaware, where nearly the entire state has been converted to an upgraded power grid, utilities have been better able to respond to power outages.

“We have to study the costs and benefits of all these items I mentioned and make sure they are worth it,’’ Hanna said.

PSE&G did a study several years ago and found that implementing a “smart” grid would cost the average homeowner $200, according to Michael Jennings, a spokesman for PSEG Power, a subsidiary of the company.

“These were ballpark figures,” Jennings said. “There was a lot of opposition and we haven’t pursued it since.”