Utilities Need to Keep BPU in the Know About Response to Major Storms, Report Says

Tom Johnson | October 21, 2014 | Energy & Environment
Information would give agency better insight into most cost-effective steps to increase resilience

Credit: Governor's Office/Tim Larsen
Richard Mroz, president of the state's Board of Public Utilities
The state needs utilities to report much more information on storm responses to determine how best to increase resiliency in the wake of major weather events, according to a consultant for the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities.

A report prepared by GE Energy Consulting concludes that the state fails to get sufficient information from the utilities to give the agency sufficient insight into what happened during major storms, a problem that raises questions about what are the most cost-effective steps to increase resiliency and reliability.

The report, aimed at helping shape state policies to reduce outages during such events and to increase reliability of the power grid, mirrors some of the recommendations already being considered by the BPU to increase resiliency of the system — a top priority of the Christie administration in the wake of three major storms in just the past three years.

Hurricane Sandy left millions of customers without power — some for two weeks or longer — as well as shutting down sewage treatment plants and drinking water systems. That led to untreated sewage being dumping into the state’s waterways and created boil-water advisories for hundreds of thousands of residents.

But the cost of improvements will fall on ratepayers in a state saddled with some of the highest energy rates in the nation.

Achieving storm resiliency targets will require new investments, according to Jovan Bebic, managing director of GE’s power systems operation and planning. But more details were not detailed in a briefing yesterday at the BPU’s Trenton headquarters.

The report recommends a range of areas where improvements could be made. They include reporting by utilities on major weather events; hardening distribution systems, which deliver electricity to customers; and preventing electric substations from being flooded during extreme storms.

Some of the recommendations reflect steps the BPU previously has instructed the utilities to take, according to Commissioner Joseph Fiordaliso.

New BPU President Richard Mroz agreed, saying the agency has engaged the utilities on many of these issues. Referring to the report, he said the board is on the right track to improve reliability and resiliency of the power grid.

Public Service Electric & Gas is among the utilities acting on these issues. It won approval from the BPU to prevent substations from flooding by raising equipment above 100-year flood zones and installing walls around the stations.

After Hurricane Sandy, 40 percent of the utilities’ substations were not operational, according to Bebic. When substations fail, tens of thousands of customers are left without power. That’s far more people in the dark than those who lose power because of tree limbs falling on electric lines.

That issue also was addressed by the consultant, who noted that between 20 percent and 50 percent of tree-related outages were caused by trees located outside of the utilities’ rights-of-way. In a recommendation that is more controversial, it suggests giving utilities the authority to remove any trees that are in danger of causing outages. Towns and residents who cherish their trees would likely oppose this sort of blanket permission.

The report also talked about the prospects of replacing vulnerable overhead lines with underground power systems. While acknowledging underground lines have a high potential to reduce storm impacts, widespread adoption would be prohibitively costly.

Still, the report also suggested that the move to replace overhead lines with underground ones may be appropriate in cases in which critical systems are vulnerable to damage and shifting the lines would improve reliability and reduce restoration time for customers.