With hundreds of thousands of customers still without power, Gov. Phil Murphy yesterday ordered a state agency to investigate how utilities prepared and responded to twin winter storms that pummeled New Jersey in the past weeks.
The directive, similar to one issued in the past after major storms left much of New Jersey in the dark, follows a huge outcry from residents and officials over what they perceive as a slow response by utilities, particularly Jersey Central Power & Light, in restoring power.
Following Hurricane Sandy and other extreme storms, the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities has pushed the state’s utilities into investing billions of dollars in making their systems more resilient and responding more quickly to outages.
Murphy frustrated and angry
“We are going to examine what went wrong, and whether the plans for protecting and strengthening our grid devised post-Sandy have been followed,” Murphy said. Admittedly frustrated and angry, Murphy issued the order after visiting with storm-ravaged communities in Sussex County.
Many were still without power after experiencing outages as a result of Friday’s nor’easter, a problem the governor called completely unacceptable. The situation late Thursday afternoon was hardly less disturbing. More than 200,000 customers were still without power, Murphy said.
The governor singled out JCP&L for particular problems. The utility’s, the state’s second largest with 1 million customers, lack of preparedness is an issue that must be examined, Murphy said.
JCP&L blames heavy snow
JCP&L blamed the heavy snowfall, as much as 25 inches in some areas, for causing an additional 117,000 outages Wednesday, on top of the 18,000 customers still without power from the earlier storm.
Ron Morano, a spokesman for the utility, said its first priority is restoring power to those customers. “We’ll work with the board to evaluate our preparedness and make improvements so it will not happen again,” he said.
The utility, however, has often been in the cross-hairs of regulators in the past, usually over extended power outages, including one that occurred along the Jersey Shore during the Fourth of July holiday weekend.
The most recent outages could — if the governor’s comments at a press conference are any guide — focus on its vegetation management program, which aims to have an aggressive tree-trimming policy that prevents falling limbs and other parts of trees from bringing down power lines.
At his press conference, Murphy told of being advised by outside contractors surprised by how many tree limbs brought down power lines in the utility’s service territory.
Murphy announced that public hearings will be held in areas served by JCP&L, the utility he described as responsible for most of the outages.
The issue, however, presents thorny challenges for the state, utilities, and their customers. Lower natural-gas prices have dropped electric bills significantly for customers while pressure is building to approve rate increases for a range of new policies.
Public Service Electric & Gas won approval to spend $1.2 billion to enhance the reliability of its gas and electric grid four years ago; other utilities have won approval for smaller investments upgrading their systems. As of yesterday afternoon, 64,000 of its 2.2 million customers were without power.
PSE&G is also now seeking to invest $2.3 billion in modernizing its aging gas mains with more modern pipes that leak less and are safer. Its parent, Public Service Enterprise Group, is seeking subsidies of $300 million a year to keep its nuclear plants viable, a cost that also would be passed on to ratepayers.
In the future, ratepayers also will be asked to continue to subsidize various initiatives, including some pushed by the Murphy administration, to promote development of clean-energy initiatives, such as solar power and offshore wind.