Somerset County Town Compiles ‘Hazard Inventory’ to Curtail Power Outages

Tom Johnson | April 11, 2014 | Energy & Environment
Warren Township works with utilities, Rutgers to identify and resolve potential problems before next round of extreme weather

utility pole
In the wake of three extreme storms that left a majority of Warren Township without power, sometimes for up to 14 days at a time, local officials decided they’d had enough.

So the Somerset County community embarked on an unusual effort to reduce those outages by identifying what hazards posed problems that would leave residents in the dark, whether they were utility poles in danger of falling, trees that could take down power lines, and even low-hanging electrical wires.

Working with the two utilities serving the township, officials surveyed more than 250 miles of electrical systems, identifying — with the help of Rutgers University — 351 different hazards.

They ranged from cracked or broken utility poles; tree branches threatening to knock out power lines, and utility wires hanging off poles or other structures.

The so-called hazard inventory, undertaken last September, has largely achieved its goal, hopefully limiting the number of outages residents must endure, although even township officials concede it would not prevent blackouts in the event of a substation failure or if a power line feeding into Warren went down.

Jersey Central Power & Light, which serves about 85 percent of the township, and Public Service Electric & Gas, the utility serving the rest of the town corrected approximately 95 percent of the hazards identified by the community. The rest of the work should be completed by the end of the month, according to township officials.

“We’re reducing the issues in Warren that will impact our residents,’’ said Mark Kane, township business administrator. “What Warren has demonstrated is that municipalities can work with utilities to mutually benefit each other.’’

JCP&L thanked the township for its efforts, saying it encourages customers to contact the utility, which serves more than 1 million homes and businesses. But the company also issued a cautionary comment.

“It is important to note that the company knows its infrastructure best and follows best industry practices for maintenance and tree-trimming,’’ said Ron Morano, a spokesman for JCP&L.

Still, township officials said both utilities were very cooperative in their effort.

“Both utilities were very helpful,’’ said Bob Morrison, cochairman of the township’s utility advisory committee, which helped spearhead the effort. “Some things rose more quickly than others, such as a cracked (utility) pole and low-hanging wire.’’

Morrison said the township’s experience could be a model for other towns to become more proactive in guarding the local utility’s infrastructure from local outages.

The committee was formed in the wake of Hurricane Irene, a rare October snowfall, and Hurricane Sandy, all of which caused widespread and prolonged outages.

As part of the identification effort, the committee worked with Rutgers University to develop an Android application to locate hazards by geography, documenting the nearest pole number, and adding all of the data to a master database.

Once the utilities received the information, they came up with a plan to fix the problems and a timetable for doing so, according to township officials.

“Warren Township is prepared for an upcoming storm season,’’ said George Lazo, a member of the township committee who praised the work of the utility committee.

The township’s efforts come at a time when state regulatory officials also are struggling with how to make the power grid more resilient. The New Jersey Board of Public Utilities has convened proceedings to determine what the state’s electric and gas utilities need to do to prevent the type of widespread outages that occurred during Sandy.

Meanwhile, PSE&G is seeking approval to spend $2.6 billion over the next five years to harden its electric and gas systems, primarily by raising or preventing dozens of substations from flooding and replacing aging gas pipelines.

The BPU also is considering [|toughening its standards” for utilities to trim trees in their territories.