All eyes on NJ utility companies on eve of fourth nor’easter

Crews from JCP&L sent buckets skyward in Morris Plains Tuesday morning, installing spacers on wires to keep them from collapsing under snow. With the fourth nor’easter in a month looming, the utility’s under pressure to up their performance game after getting lambasted for letting power outages last for days after prior storms.

“Storm preparation that we’re doing include bringing additional crews in from our sister companies in Ohio, having additional contractors on site. We’re going to be setting up two staging sites today, one in Essex County, one in Ocean County, reaching out to our elected officials,” said Ron Morano, a senior PR representative for JCP&L.

That included Gov. Phil Murphy, who confirmed JCP&L’s called in 800 out-of-state linemen.

“God knows, we certainly hope that that is sufficient. We are considering, and I’m saying considering, we’re not announcing this now, a whole range of measures, including a potential emergency declaration for later on this evening,” said Murphy.

While all four of the electric utilities serving New Jersey got slammed by the heavy snow, downed lines and power outages during recent storms, JCP&L drew intense criticism for its slow response. But the utility insists it complied with all 100 performance protocols established post-Sandy.

As for waiting too long to mobilize “mutual aid” assistance, Morano said, “Well, for that type of storm, utility crews were being held by their companies. So people were holding on to crews until they saw that they could free them up. We took resources every single day that we could get them and continued to bring them in throughout that event.”

But utilities’ explanations don’t appease most customers or lawmakers. Sen. Joe Pennacchio has once again proposed a bill to raise daily fines for less than effective service.

“Right now, the utility companies really don’t have any skin in the game if they fail to follow through on their promises. They’re only fined $100 per day,” he said. “So my bill puts a little teeth into that fine. They could actually be fined up to $25,000 a day.”

“The utilities should’ve learned their lessons by now. It is time for the Legislature to act, as well as BPU,” said Assemblyman Chris DePhillips.

DePhillips explained Bergen County mayors remain furious with Orange and Rockland’s struggle to restore power. He’ll introduce a bill this week that would let towns revoke a utility’s franchise and switch to a different provider if it cannot offer “continuous and uninterrupted” service.

“This is a service issue, as well as a public safety issue. We cannot have young children and senior citizens in their homes for four, five, six, even seven days without power or heat. It’s unacceptable,” said DePhillips.

Orange and Rockland says it “worked around the clock to restore service to the customers impacted by both storms” but admits its “… response was marred because O&R was unable to provide reliable service restoration times …” It’s offering to reimburse customers for spoiled food and prescriptions. Meanwhile, the state rate counsel questions letting towns switch utilities.

“That’s not so simple because a utility that is serving a particular franchise has made a significant investment in that area … I would rather see them fix whatever’s wrong in the existing service territory, than simply let people leave or go to different companies,” said the Director of the Division of Rate Counsel Stefanie Brand.

The Board of Public Utilities’ investigation into the utilities’ response to the last storm continues. Meanwhile, the next nor’easter is expected to hit Wednesday.