BPU Allots $46 Million in Rebates to Help Replace Sandy-Damaged Appliances

Tom Johnson | January 24, 2013 | Energy & Environment, Sandy
Agency also orders utilities to take speedy action to improve preparation, communications

The state is earmarking $46 million in clean energy funds to help homeowners and businesses hit by Hurricane Sandy to replace appliances and other equipment damaged or destroyed by the superstorm.

The action, taken yesterday by the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities, will allocate much of the money now used to fund rebates for energy efficient appliances, such as furnaces, boilers, refrigerators and air conditioners, to areas most affected by Sandy, particularly along the Jersey Shore.

In addition to homeowners and businesses that have to replace appliances, the rebates will apply retroactively to those who have already spent the money, including restaurants and other food services that have replaced freezers, fryers and other equipment lost in the storm.

“I’m glad we can help in the rebuilding areas affected by Sandy,’’ said BPU President Bob Hanna, before the agency voted unanimously to adopt the order.

The clean energy funds are generated by surcharges paid by virtually all electric and gas customers, but have declined in recent years as the Christie administration and Legislature have diverted about $680 million to help plug gaps in various state budgets.

Homeowners and businesses affected by Hurricane Sandy outside areas mapped by the state as places where damage occurred also will be allowed to apply for rebates, based on a case-by-case analysis by the program manager of the energy efficiency program.

But some critics argued the state’s modest steps — such as increasing residential rebates for energy-efficiency furnaces from $500 to $700 – are not enough.

“With so many people impacted by the storm, it would have been really great to give large incentive rebates to help homeowners and businesses through this crisis,’’ said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club and a persistent critic of the Christie administration.

The state hopes to have the new rebate program for Sandy victims up and running by next month, according to Betsy Ackerman, assistant director of economic development and energy policy at the BPU.

The agency also adopted a series of recommendations to require the state’s four electric utilities to take steps to improve preparedness and restoration plans for major storms. The recommendations are mostly the result of a 260-page report prepared for the agency after two storms in the fall of 2011, but also partly reflect some of the lessons learned from Sandy, which left 2.7 million people without power this past fall.

In its order, the board established a series of deadlines for the electric utilities to quickly implement its recommendations.

They include giving customers an estimated time for restoration of power within 24 hours of a major storm and to improve communications between their companies and local officials about storm-related outages. Lack of communication about the status of electric services was one of the more frequent complaints stemming from both Sandy and Hurricane Irene.

The order also requires utilities to develop emergency plans for restoring service when a minimum of 75 percent of customers are left without power and conduct annual training exercises simulating responses to such events. During Sandy, up to 90 percent of Jersey Central Power & Light customers lost power, some for as long as 13 days or more.

In addition, the state is requiring the electric utilities to submit to the agency specific plans that outline steps to prevent flooding at substations during major storms. During Sandy, 58 utility substations were knocked off line, each of them leaving tens of thousands of people without power.

For some BPU commissioners, however, the measures were seen as only the first step.

“I like the emphasis on the infrastructure,’’ said BPU Commissioner Joseph Fiordaliso. “The thing we can’t do is kick the can down the road. The key is the maintenance and enhancement of our infrastructure.’’

BPU Commissioner Jeanne Fox agreed, saying climate change is clearly happening. “The mitigation efforts need to be clearly greater,’’ she said.

East Windsor Mayor Janice Mironov praised the agency’s efforts.

“The people of New Jersey will be assured of better service and a lot less uncertainty,” she said. “We appreciate the fact that utilities will now be required to provide local officials with daily updates concerning the number of customers out in their towns and the estimated number of customers that will be restored each day.’’