Lingering Outages After Isaias May Prompt BPU to Speed Rollouts of Smart Meters

Tropical storm left 1.4 million residents without power while utilities struggled to restore service to customers
Credit: PSE&G
PSE&G crew works to restore service in the wake of tropical storm Isaias

With 1.4 million households left without power after last week’s Tropical Storm Isaias, the state may speed up its efforts to install smart meters and other technologies to aid utilities in restoring electricity to customers during widespread outages.

“What are we getting for our money when we see disruptions like this?’’ asked Bob Gordon, a commissioner of the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities, as the agency discussed the performance of the four utilities in responding to the storm.

The quick-moving storm pummeled much of the state, downing utility poles and trees, damaging high-power transmission lines and leaving hundreds of customers without power until this past Monday.

More than 1 million left in the dark

It left local officials, consumer advocates and even commissioners calling for an investigation into why — after utilities spent billions of dollars upgrading the power grid following Superstorm Sandy — more than 1 million customers were still left without power after the extreme storm.

The board is expected to conduct a review of whether utilities followed established protocols; nearly 100 recommendations were adopted by the agency following Superstorm Sandy, designed to reduce outages and restore power sooner, according to BPU president Joseph Fiordaliso. Once the agency’s investigation is concluded, it may lead to additional public hearings on the problem, he said.

For Gordon, the immediate focus should be on smart meters and advanced metering infrastructure (AMI), a technology already in more than 90 million homes across the country, although it’s not common in New Jersey. The recently adopted energy master plan called AMI a foundation component of a modernized electric power grid that creates a two-way communications systems between utilities and their customers.

Calling utilities is ‘crazy’

“In the 21st century, you have to call your utility to let them know your power is out. That’s just crazy,’’ Gordon said. It is time to forge ahead on this issue, he said, while recognizing the costs to ratepayers.

In the past, the agency has been leery of pushing utilities to adopt smart meters and AMI. That changed earlier this year when its energy plan recommended the state move in that direction following a pilot program initiated by Rockland Electric, the state’s smallest electric utility, which installed smart meters for its 74,000 customers.

In February, the board lifted a moratorium on utilities seeking to install smart meters and AMI, and directed three utilities to file plans with the agency within six months to do so. Only Public Service Electric & Gas has done so, proposing to invest $714 million over a five-year period to install the technology for its 2.3 million customers.

“Smart meters would give us the best opportunity to provide the highest levels of service to our customers — especially when severe weather strikes,’’ said Michael Jennings, a PSE&G spokesman. “Smart meters would send us a signal when any customer has suffered an outage; these messages can be correlated and analyzed to more quickly determine the type and location of the problem.’’

Clean-energy advocates also back installation of the technology. “They’re the key to a dynamic electric grid that can pave the way for a clean-energy future,’’ said Doug O’Malley, director of Environment New Jersey.

But BPU Commissioner Diane Solomon questioned how effective smart meters were in the wake of outages caused by the tropical storm in neighboring states, like New York, which already has adopted the technology. She urged the new investigation focus on how well the systems worked in those states.

Other commissioners complained that some utilities had problems communicating accurate information about outages and when power would be restored to both local officials and customers.

“This apparently is going to be a very active storm season,’’ Fiordaliso said. “It’s important to have a hard, strong and resilient grid.’’