State Agency Pursues Probe into Utilities’ Responses to Severe Storm

Tom Johnson | July 24, 2015 | Energy & Environment
Late-June macroburst knocked out power to more than 400,000 customers, disrupting communications and impeding restoration efforts

macroburst storm
The state Board of Public Utilities ordered its staff to continue a review of utility responses to a severe storm this past June that left more than 400,000 electric customers without power and hobbled restoration efforts in its wake.

The June 23 storm, classified as a macroburst by the National Weather Service, featured wind gusts to 85 miles per hour in Gloucester and Camden counties, downing power lines, toppling trees, and disrupting telecommunications services.
The storm, with winds of 50 mph to 75 mph, eventually moved into other parts of southern New Jersey.

The line of thunderstorms wreaked the most havoc in Atlantic City Electric’s territory, causing extensive damage to the utility’s infrastructure, according to the BPU. ACE serves approximately a half-million customers.

The company reported that 17 transmission circuits and five substations were knocked out of service, transmission towers and distribution poles had to be replaced, and thousands of feet of cable needed to be rebuilt. For ACE, the storm caused greater damage than either 2012’s extreme weather or Hurricane Sandy.

Initially 275,000 ACE customers were left without power in June, but some of those were restored within three hours. Public Service Electric & Gas, the state’s largest utility, had 159,000 lose their electricity during the storm, the vast majority in its southern territory.

On Wednesday, the Obama administration granted the state’s request for a federal disaster declaration for Atlantic, Burlington, Camden, and Gloucester counties. The state was seeking more than $15 million in damages resulting from the storm.

“I have directed staff to continue the review of ACE’s overall storm response with a focus on the company’s communications with customers and local officials,’’ said BPU President Richard Mroz. “I have also directed staff to determine the impact of Verizon’s cellular voice and data-service outage; communications issues; and each of the company’s compliance with board directives.’’

Damage to a major Verizon fiber optic system impacted cellular service in portions of seven southern counties in New Jersey, particularly in Camden and Gloucester. The wireless outage caused a delay in ACE achieving a solid situational awareness of the full system impact of the weather, according to the regulatory agency.

For a period of at least 12 hours after the storm hit, ACE was unable to use its field-mobile-data terminals to dispatch its workforce and to communicate with field personnel. It forced the utility to revert to radios and manual processes to dispatch crews.

As a result, the board also directed BPU staff to work with ACE and other utilities to identify and develop contingency plans for the potential for wireless outages during power restoration.

After two devastating hurricanes and a rare October snowfall that led to extensive and widespread outages throughout the state, the BPU has increased its focus on making the power system more resilient; to improve communications to the agency, local officials, and customers; and doing more-effective planning for restoration during such events.