Assembly Panel Grills BPU on Utilities’ Storm Response Plans

The hard questions aren't going away, and it appears as if the agency needs to come up with better answers

It’s been quite a while since the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities appeared before the Assembly Telecommunications and Utilities Committee, but staffers showed up yesterday to talk about what they were doing to improve the utilities’ response to major storms, such as Hurricane Sandy.

It may be some time before they show up again.

Kristie Izzo, secretary for the BPU, was peppered with tough questions again and again from committee members dealing with the agency’s efforts to improve communication between utilities, customers, and local officials during extreme weather. That has been a recurring complaint not just throughout the recent superstorm, but also during events in 2011, like Hurricane Irene and a rare October snowstorm.

In fairness to Izzo, her expertise at the BPU falls far from directing storm response or generating preparedness plans, which often left her unable to answer the committee’s questions, but promising to forward answers soon.

The hearing, however, seemed to raise questions about whether lawmakers and the Christie administration are on the same path to dealing with problems posed by major storms.

In her testimony, Izzo noted that the agency recently adopted 103 different measures to improve the utilities’ storm preparedness and response plans.

Those measures, at least in part, were based on recommendations prepared by a consultant hired by the BPU to develop benchmarks for storm preparedness, service restoration, and communication.

According to Izzo, most of the recommendations were created before Sandy, and thus yielded better results after Hurricane Irene and the October snowstorm.

For instance, while it took 13 days to restore service to the 2.9 million customers left without power after Sandy, that period compared favorably with the length of time it took to restore consumers after Hurricane Katrina in Mississippi and Louisiana, she said.

“We need to do more and we will do more,” Izzo said. The agency also is looking to step up communication between customers and call centers, require utilities to use more social media and websites in telling ratepayers when service will be restored, and deciding what steps need to be taken to prevent utility substations and switching stations from being flooded, an occurrence that could leave tens of thousands of customers without service.

Some members of the committee, however, questioned how effective social media and websites would be in communicating information about power outages and expected restoration times, if those same customers were without electricity. They also were skeptical about how online solutions could help senior citizens, many of whom are without access to computers or smart phones.

“No matter what we do, there always will be outages,’’ Izzo said, “but we’re doing everything we can to minimize outages and their duration.’’

In response to a question from Assemblyman Wayne DeAngelo (D-Mercer) about communications being one of the biggest hang-ups of the recent storms, Izzo conceded that the utilities are cognizant of the need to provide more up-to-date information to both local officials and customers.

Assemblyman Upendra Chivukula (D-Somerset), the chairman of the committee, also was critical of the agency, questioning its use of a consultant to identify problems with the grid and whether a smart-grid technology, would have led to quicker restoration times.

“We might have gotten information faster,’’ said Izzo.

Chivukula also asked how the state would achieve its goal of developing 1,500 megawatts of new combined heat and power plants, which generate electricity and heat simultaneously for large energy users like hospitals and colleges.

The CHP plants are viewed as a way of increasing the reliability of the power grid and driving down electricity costs for all ratepayers by reducing congestion.

While answers may not have emerged from the agency, Chivukula was conciliatory at the end of Izzo’s testimony.

“That wasn’t so bad,’’ he said.

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