Jersey Central Power & Light is asking state regulators to approve a four-year, $400 million spending plan to upgrade its electric grid to buttress its reliability.
The request, filed with the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities last Friday, focuses on curbing the types of widespread outages that have plagued electric companies in New Jersey during extreme storm events in recent years.
JCP&L, the state’s second largest utility, is the latest utility to seek approval for a rate increase to fund huge investments in modernizing an aging grid, a priority of New Jersey and policymakers across the nation.
In June, Public Service Electric & Gas filed a $2.5 billion, five-year investment program with the BPU to upgrade its electric and gas distribution systems. Atlantic City Electric, too, is seeking to spend $340 million over four years to modernize its power grid. At the same time, both PSE&G and ACE each has other separate rate cases pending before the agency.
These various rate cases are a concern to consumer advocates who fear that customers face spikes in their bills, particularly given recent laws signed by the governor that will ramp up the state’s reliance on clean energy as well as possibly asking ratepayers to subsidize nuclear power.
The concerns about high utility bills flared again last week when a Newark woman died after her power was cut off because of an unpaid electric bill to PSE&G, shutting off oxygen that she needed.
Defending against bad weather
In JCP&L’s case, the proposed spending is above and beyond what the utility annually invests to enhance the reliability and resiliency of its system.
The plan includes nearly 4,000 enhancements to upgrade overhead and underground distribution lines, as well as new equipment to reduce the frequency and duration of power outages.
“The special focus of this program is to limit damage during severe weather events,’’ said Jim Fakult, president of JCP&L, which serves 1.1 million customers.
The plan also outlines additional vegetation management to reduce the potential for tree damage, which is the primary cause of outages during severe storms in JCP&L’s service territory.
Governor was a big critic
In March, the governor singled out JCP&L for harsh criticism over how the utility responded to twin winter storms that left hundreds of thousands of customers without power for days. In particular, Murphy recounted how outside contractors told him they were surprised by how many tree limbs brought down power lines during the storms.
JCP&L said the proposal for new investments stemmed from a detailed analysis of its distribution system, as well as lessons learned from restoration efforts following recent severe weather events. The utility estimated the initial increases on the monthly bill for residential customers would be about 25 cents, if approved by the BPU.
As a result, part of the planned work includes projects dealing with overhead circuit reliability and resiliency, which involves enhanced vegetation management.
The utility also plans to install new technology to pinpoint and isolate damage in the system, which could quickly decrease the number of customers affected by an outage. It also plans to accelerate the replacement of underground cables and submersible transformers with new equipment.
Finally, JCP&L plans to protect substations from storm damage by adopting flood mitigation measures and upgrading substation equipment.