Lessons from Irene and Sandy helped PSE&G during Ida

Utility that kept lights on for nearly all customers credits program to raise electric substations above floodwaters
Credit: (AP Photo/Mel Evans)
Aug. 30, 2011, a PSE&G worker restoring power to a section of Princeton after Hurricane Irene

New Jersey’s largest electric and gas utility kept its services very largely up and running when what was left of Hurricane Ida hit the state even though the monster storm unleashed record rainfall, causing widespread flooding and more than two dozen deaths in the state.

Public Service Electric & Gas said it had “almost no” flooding of electric substations during the storm last week, and credited its ‘Energy Strong’ program of raising or rebuilding those facilities since Hurricane Irene in 2011 and Superstorm Sandy in 2012.

Since those major storms, the utility has raised, rebuilt, or eliminated 26 substations, and plans to increase that number to 46 by 2023, along with 14 gas-metering stations and storage facilities, all at a cost of $1.47 billion.

During Irene and Sandy, 29 of the utility’s substations were flooded. Of those, 26 serving about 320,000 customers were modified in the current program, and none of them were flooded during Ida, said Kim Hanemann, the new president of the utility.

“Clearly from this event, we saw the benefit of some of the actions we took after Sandy,” Hanemann said in an interview with NJ Spotlight News.

One of PSE&G’s substation measures took place in Cranford, which was hit hard by flooding. As a result, only 63 of around 8,000 customers served by the substation lost power, Hanemann said.

The utility is also replacing almost half of its 3,000-mile network of unprotected steel natural-gas pipes — the largest in the country — with more durable plastic lines, at a cost of $2.8 billion. That part of the program began in 2015 and has replaced about 1,000 miles of steel pipe so far, the company said.

Biden stresses urgency of action on climate change

The program includes work in Hillsborough, one of the locations visited by President Joe Biden during his tour of flood-hit sites in New Jersey and New York on Tuesday.

Biden urged support for international efforts to cut carbon emissions, and said he would be attending COP26, the United Nations climate talks in Scotland in November.

But Biden warned that mitigation of the causes of climate change will have to take place alongside adaptation to new climate realities — like the hardening of electric substations.

“Every part of the country is getting hit by extreme weather,” he said, according to a transcript released by the White House. “And we’re now living in real time what the country is going to look like. And if we don’t do something — we can’t turn it back very much, but we can prevent it from getting worse.

“Whatever damage done in New Jersey, you can’t build back and restore it … because another tornado, another 10 inches of rain, is going to produce the same kind of results,” he said.

He urged policymakers and the public to “get back to a place where, if it happened again, the damage would be considerably less.”

In April, the administration of Gov. Phil Murphy released a landmark document on climate-change adaptation describing seismic changes — including moving population away from flood-prone areas — that will be needed in the future because of climate effects such as bigger storms and rising seas.

Applying Sandy’s lessons

Across the state, the affected substations are chosen because of their presence in flood-zone maps updated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency after Sandy, Hanemann said. Substations that are raised are elevated to 1 foot above FEMA’s flood projection for that location.

PSE&G’s adaptation program is also using stronger power-line poles that are designed to withstand the bigger and more frequent rain- and windstorms that are already coming with climate change.

To pay for the work, PSE&G is raising rates for its ratepayers, most recently by about $4 a month for a typical residential electric customer. That increment, and a previous raise for the first phase of the program, has been approved by the state Board of Public Utilities.

The storm-hardening work is likely to continue beyond 2023, said Hanemann, because of the ongoing climate threat to energy service, and it will have to be paid for.

“As we put these plans together, we take a look at the impact on customers’ bills,” she said. “But you also have to think about the impact on customers’ lives and the cost of some of these huge restoration efforts as well, and so we look to balance all of that.”

She declined to say whether the utility will be asking the BPU to approve another rate increase.

“We have identified lots of work to do and will continue to have conversations with our regulator. We will continue to work with them to identify future programs because there is still, we believe, much more that can be done,” she said.

The need for storm-hardened energy service is heightened by more people using their homes as workplaces and schools during the COVID-19 pandemic, and by the coming transition to an electric-based economy as governments seek to cut carbon emissions, Hanemann said.

“As we build the system to ready it for electrification, we can also harden it at the same time,” she said.

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