State Agency Wants Utilities to Deliver More Data About Outages

Tom Johnson | February 25, 2013 | Energy & Environment
BPU proposal calls for quarterly reports about equipment failures, more aggressive tree trimming

The state is looking to step up reporting requirements for New Jersey’s four electric utilities in the aftermath of the recent major storms that left millions of homes and businesses without power, many for a week or more.

Beyond requiring more frequent and detailed reports of what and how often equipment fails during power outages, the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities also may implement more aggressive efforts to trim trees and vegetation, which can also contribute to outages.

The proposal, still a work in progress, is the latest undertaken by the regulatory agency in response to the huge storms that blasted New Jersey over the past 18 months, blacking out large portions of the state.

The outages have led to numerous legislative initiatives to prevent customers from losing electricity or gas during extreme weather and to spur the utilities to restore power more quickly.

It also has forced the utilities to examine what they can do to prevent widespread outages and restore power more swiftly. For instance, Public Service Electric & Gas, the state’s largest utility, filed last week a petition with the BPU seeking to spend as much as $4 billion over the next decade to make its distribution and transmission system more resilient.

Its proposal calls for the utility to spend a big chunk of the money on elevating or preventing PSE&G’s substations from flooding during major storms. When a substation is knocked offline, it can leaves tens of thousands of customers in the dark.

The agency’s latest proposal is aimed at giving its staff the analytical tools to better understand why customers are losing power not only in major storm events but also during more frequent, less widespread blackouts.

Tom Walker, a staffer with the agency, said the proposal hopes to track where there are geographic problems and equipment issues.

It aims to do that by requiring utilities to report quarterly all outages that have occurred, and then again annually. These updates will focus on what equipment — particularly circuits and feeders coming in and out of substations — is not performing well.

“I view these new reporting requirements as a very important analytical tool,’’ said BPU President Bob Hanna, noting that it will help the agency make more informed data-based decisions.

BPU Commissioner Joseph Fiordaliso agreed. “This is comprehensive,’’ he said. “It will make the systems much more dependable for customers.’’

A more aggressive tree and vegetation management program also will help reduce outages, according to BPU Commissioner Jeanne Fox, who said she is shocked at the number of municipalities that still do not understand the problems trees cause in power outages.

For his part, Fiordaliso suggested that the issue of modernizing and upgrading the grid poses difficult questions for the board, particularly how much the agency is willing to force ratepayers to pay for that effort.

“That is something we have to collectively decide,’’ he said, adding that a strong, vibrant utility infrastructure is key to a healthy state economy.

Those decisions are complicated by filings such as PSE&G’s proposal to ramp up spending on upgrading its utility infrastructure, which does not include its cost-recovery expenditures related to Hurricane Sandy. PSE&G said those expenditures could run between $250 million and $300 million.

On Friday, Jersey Central Power & Light said it would seek to recover more than $600 million it spent as a result of the superstorm. That would raise customer rates by 4.5 percent, or about $4.44 a month for the typical residential ratepayer.

Beyond the costs associated with the big storms, utility customers face higher bills due to the state’s efforts to promote accelerated development of solar installations.