Redundancy, Tree Trimming, Key to Keeping Lights On, Utilities Say

Tom Johnson | December 5, 2012 | Energy & Environment
A redundant grid, and a smarter one, will help protect power during superstorms

If New Jersey wants a better response to major storms like Hurricane Sandy, the state needs to build more redundancy into the power grid and get serious about aggressive tree-trimming efforts, utility executives said yesterday.

The state also needs to look at ways to develop a smarter electric grid, a step that would improve communication between electric companies and customers and allow more efficient dispatch of crews to restore service, the executives said at a forum sponsored by the New Jersey Alliance for Action.

The event at the PNC Arts Center in Holmdel provided a glimpse of what the state’s four utilities will likely tell a pair of legislative committees today and tomorrow, as they explore what steps need to be taken to improve the power grid in the wake of superstorms like Sandy, which left 2.7 million customers in the dark.

The storm has spurred investigations by the Christie administration and lawmakers, as well as proposals to avert problems in the future.

For instance, a bill, sponsored by Assemblywoman Betty Lou DeCroce (R-Morris), would require gas stations, hospitals, and nursing homes to have backup generators in the event they lose power. There were long lines at the few gas stations open after Sandy, because most had lost the ability to pump fuel.

Costs Starting to Become Clear

For the state’s electric utilities, the costs of Sandy are just beginning to emerge.

Yesterday, Public Service Electric & Gas said its restoration costs could run as much as $300 million, which is approximately $200 million less than what Jersey Central Power & Light’s costs are likely to run, according to the Morristown-based utility.

Then there is the matter of improving reliability in a time when extreme weather is unlikely to be an anomaly.

“This is changing customers’ expectations,’’ said Francis Peverly, vice president of operations at Rockland Electric, which serves 72,000 customers. “Whether they are real or not, we have to come to some middle ground.’’

“We have to rethink what we’re doing on the electric side of the business,’’ said Ralph LaRossa, president and chief operating officer of PSE&G, the state’s biggest utility with 2.2 million customers. “We need to build redundancy into the system.’’

That especially applies to substations and switching stations. During Sandy, 58 utility substations were flooded, knocking out service to tens of thousands of customers at a time.

Substations are where high-voltage electricity from transmission lines is stepped down to a lower voltage that can be delivered to homes and businesses over distribution lines. A switching station is a transmission substation where the utility can switch or reroute power from one line or path to another, thus making it possible to isolate — and clear — a fault such as a tree falling across the wires.

PSE&G recognized the vulnerability of some of its substations and already had put plans in to PJM to back up a Newark substation, which flooded and was knocked off line during Sandy, LaRossa said. The utility’s investment strategy may change as a result of the storm, he added.

Accelerating Investments

Other utilities agreed.

Rockland Electric’s Peverly, said the utility, a subsidiary of Consolidated Edison, will probably accelerate its investment in capital projects to increase redundancy in its system.

Doing so will surely impact ratepayers. LaRossa projected the cost of building redundant switching stations at $100 million each, estimating substations could cost $2 million.

He and several other utility executives also strongly urged the state to develop a more aggressive policy to trim trees, one of the primary causes of power outages. In PSE&G’s franchise territory, 48,000 trees knocked out power; in JCP&L’s territory, the number of downed trees that took out power lines totaled 65,000.

The issue is among the most controversial ones facing utilities, given that New Jersey is a long-settled state with huge oak and other trees. Many residents residents and local officials complain loudly when the trees are trimmed or taken down.

“Vegetation management is probably the important thing a utility can do in making its system its system more resilient,’’ said Vincent Maione, president of Atlantic City Electric of Pepco Holdings Inc. “We need support from regulators and legislators to make it happen.’’

The state lacks authority to order tree-trimming to reduce outages, LaRossa noted, a power invested in local governments. He recalled a meeting with a local official who showed him a finger and told him not to cut any branch thicker any than that.

The utilities also lobbied to allow them to invest in a smarter grid to improve communications between the companies and their customers. “Automation is vitally critical,’’ Maione said, whose parent company has installed advanced metering infrastructure in Maryland and Delaware, where sister subsidiaries operate.

New Jersey is facing enormous rebuilding costs, and LaRossa conceded the state will have to meet difficult challenges. “A lot is changing,’’ he said. “It’s time to for us to pause and figure out where we need to put our next dollar.’’

To LaRossa, there are plenty of opportunities to improve the reliability of the system. “It is a policy question. The solutions are there,’’ he said. “You can’t stick your head in the sand and say the solutions are not there.’’