By Tom Johnson, NJSpotlight.com
Warning that extreme weather is here to stay, state regulatory officials yesterday began weighing steps that New Jersey electric utilities should take to improve response times when restoring power to customers.
At a hearing in the Statehouse Annex, the Board of Public Utilities heard a consultant retained by the agencydetail some of the 143 recommendations made to deal with future major storms.
Two unprecedented storms in 2011, which left nearly 3 million electric customers without power, triggered the investigation. Hurricane Irene landed in late August, leaving 1.9 million customers without power, the largest number of outages in New Jersey's history. The second, a rare snowstorm two days before Halloween, left some customers without electricity for as long as 10 days.
The recommendations suggested far-reaching changes in the ways utilities prepare for major storms, ranging from improving communications with customers and local officials when dealing with outages to establishing so-called Incident Command Systems to manage emergencies caused by major storms.
The report also recommended that the state take a close look at the way the utilities seek and obtain mutual assistance from other electric companies, including affiliates, in major storms. During Hurricane Irene, none of the state's four electric utilities received as much personnel from other regional power companies as they requested or in as timely fashion, according to the report.
Hurricane Irene really strained regional assistance programs because of its wide path, according to Eileen Unger, president of Emergency Preparedness Partnerships, which wrote the report. For instance, Jersey Central Power & Light, the company most criticized for its response to the outages, had to wait a week until it got its requested mutual assistance, Unger said.
BPU officials described the report as sobering and even "scary.'' But the widespread outages in both storms also prompted the Christie administration to propose tougher penalties for utilities that fail to deliver on storm restoration plans.
Instead of $100 per day, an amount BPU President Bob Hanna, described as "woefully inadequate,'' a proposed bill supported by administration would raise the fine to $25,000 per day, per violation, with a maximum cap of $2 million. Utilities would not be able to recover those fines from ratepayers, unlike restoration costs, which generally run much higher.
"Extreme weather events will continue to occur,'' Hanna said at the outset of the hearing. Accordingly, he said the the state must plan and train for the worst possible scenario.
BPU Commissioner Jeanne Fox agreed. "Climate change is happening . . . and we are seeing it happening now,'' she said. "Things are not going to get better weather-wise.''
During the hearing, it became clear that whatever needs to be done to improve utilities' responses to outages is not going to happen quickly or inexpensively.
For example, tens of thousands of customers lost electricity because 15 utility substations -- which convert electricity from high-voltage lines from power plants to deliver it to residents and businesse -- were flooded. The report urged the agency to look at the utilities' plans to deal with the problem -- whether it's relocating substations, building floodwalls, or raising the height of the facilities.