Mayors criticize JCP&L over poor storm response

Robbinsville Mayor Dave Fried said downed wires and power outages continue to frustrate residents after Tuesday’s storm. The town’s served by both PSE&G and JCP&L, but Fried sees a huge difference between the two utilities, especially with communications.

“We know where PSE&G is, we know what they’re doing, they work with our police department, they work with our public works,” he said. “With JCP&L we have no communication. Occasionally they will tell us how many people we have out of power, but they won’t tell us where. They won’t tell us who’s being restored and what order. It’s like watching a Little League team play the Yankees. I mean, there’s just no comparison.”

Fried directed his town attorney to sue JCP&L for breach of a settlement reached with the utility after Hurricane Irene slammed New Jersey in 2011. He claims JCP&L’s failed to deliver promised upgrades and he wants state regulators to let Robbinsville switch utilities.

“I think BPU, at a bare minimum, should allow towns like ours to be able to get rid of JCP&L and add another vendor, or perhaps PSE&G, so we have one vendor in each town. It would give JCP&L a little less to do, which clearly they have too much and they can’t handle it,” Fried said.

West Windsor Mayor Hemant Marathe also wants to convert his town out of JCP&L service for the same reasons. He points to the utility’s website, which gives an outside deadline of next Tuesday to get everyone restored.

“And that freaked people out even more. That’s like a week after the storm, which is worse than Sandy,” he said.

JCP&L’s Cliff Cole says it expects to have 85% of outages restored by 11:30 p.m. Friday. But that could leave more than 200,000 without power heading into the weekend. Cole notes the utility reports to mayors daily.

“We hear them. We understand that there’s frustration when the power goes out for any significant portion of time,” Cole, a senior communications representative for First Energy, said. “JCP&L has been conducting daily conferences with all the New Jersey mayors in our territory where they get to talk to JCP&L leadership, they’re briefed on the latest outages, which they can take back to their constituents, and they can ask questions.”

But mayors say they want more specifics, and that’s not a new problem. After nor’easters 2018, New Jersey’s Board of Public Utilities directed power companies to enhance communications, among other improvements. Board of Utilities President Joe Fiordaliso says he warned JCP&L Friday.

“I told them they have to get their act together regarding that,” he said. “They’re very receptive, obviously, and I know that the head of JCP&L is going to be reaching out today and providing, hopefully, more in-depth information.”

He says electric utilities have monopolies with tariffs. Can towns switch territories?

“Is it possible? Oh, I guess anything’s possible. Is it probable? Not in the short term,” Fiordaliso said.

Meanwhile, PSE&G, an underwriter of NJTV News, is predicting 90% restoration by Friday night, with 50,000 customers still in the dark this weekend and possibly into Monday. It also checks in with mayors.

“We have ongoing outreach to all of them so this way we understand what their highest priorities are and we’ve been in constant communication with them,” PSE&G COO Kim Hanemann said.

It’s all about customer service. While line crews toil in bucket trucks, people like Middletown resident Laurie Wheeler wait for power, charging phones and laptops in the car and canceling work meetings.

“It’s been incredibly difficult to work. And we already had the challenges with COVID, with having our children home, and having to home school, and things of that nature, so this has just been adding to those challenges,” she said.

2020’s been a challenging year.