As blizzard blankets NJ, can utilities restore outages quickly, efficiently?

After spending $1.75B to modernize electric grid, utilities still struggle to get lights back on, communicate with customers sitting in the dark
Credit: (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
Pedestrians make their way through heavy snow and wind in Hoboken.

Last August, a tropical storm swept quickly through New Jersey, leaving 1.4 million customers without power, some for as long as nine days. Customers were left wondering why, after a series of extreme-weather events, the state’s utilities were not more prepared to keep the lights on.

It is a question now being asked by regulators, too, as New Jersey digs out after another major storm during which power outages were expected.

Since Hurricane Irene and Sandy, New Jersey’s four electric and gas utilities have spent over $6 billion trying to make their power grids more resilient, according to New Jersey Division of Rate Counsel Director Stefanie Brand. Most of that, $4.5 billion, went to modernizing the gas grid, with $1.75 billion going to the electric grid, she said.

After Sandy, probably the most devastating storm ever to hit New Jersey, the Board of Public Utilities released a report recommending nearly 100 steps utilities should take to respond more quickly to outages, restore power sooner and build more resiliency into their systems.

“It doesn’t seem to be getting better,’’ Brand said at a two-hour hearing last week held by the BPU, the first of a quarterly series of meetings designed to get input from the public on issues affecting customers.

Independent assessment of storm resilience

Brand urged the board to undertake an independent, comprehensive and systemic analysis of the storm resilience program thus far to determine whether the state is implementing the right measure and taking the right approach.

The state also needs to strengthen penalties for utilities that fail to meet goals for restoring power to customers during widespread outages, she said.

As in the past, most of the criticism leveled at the state’s performance during the tropical storm focused on Jersey Central Power & Light, the state’s second-largest utility with more than 1 million customers.

East Amwell Mayor Richard Wolfe identified two major flaws in JCP&L’s response to the storm: poor communication with customers and elected officials and poor management, both of which were identified by the BPU in a post-storm assessment released last November.

In his community, Wolfe noted live power lines were not deactivated for days, including one for at least four days. The communication problems during the storm were not an unusual, Wolfe said, but a common experience during previous outages.

Other local officials questioned why restoration crews sat in trucks waiting hours to be assigned locations where power needed to be restored. In Millstone Township, residents talked to crews who sat in trucks for up to five and six hours before being assigned work orders to restore power, according to Al Ferro, a township committeeman.

Jim Fakult, president of JCP&L, acknowledged some of the issues raised at the hearing. “We do know we have to make enhancements to our system, particularly in the communications and ETRs,’’ he said. ETRs are estimated time of restoration, a key component to give customers detailed information during widespread outages.

Other customers criticized two key issues long a source of controversy during power outages — vegetation management and why the state has not moved more aggressively on putting power lines underground.

Trees falling on power lines account for between one-quarter and one-third of all power outages, according to Brand. Efforts to trim the trees by utilities often are hampered by local community resistance to those efforts, particularly where the trees are not in the utility’s right of way, but could lead to outages if they fall on power lines.

Ed Minall of Scotch Plains blamed utilities for too aggressive tree pruning, a policy he asserted left the trees less resistant to falling during extreme storms.

As for putting more power lines underground, the state’s utilities and BPU have long argued the cost to do so would be too high and lead to unpopular increases in utility bills.

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