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 agency detail 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.
One of the chief criticisms leveled at the utilities, particularly JCP&L, was their failure to communicate information about when power would be restored in a timely manner. The report recommended beefing up the utilities' communications systems to report information more quickly and accurately to customers and local officials, a step Hanna said has been improved from the two 2011 storms, but still needs to be improved.
BPU Commissioner Joseph Fiordaliso, emphasized that issue. "Responders should know what is going on, what's being done, and what can be anticipated,'' he said. "What we have here is a failure to communicate,'' he said, borrowing a line from the movie "Cool Hand Luke."
Besides communications, the report also faulted utilities for not drilling enough to plan for major storms. "Every storm is different,'' Unger said, adding that the utilities need to practice emergency response plans at least on an annual basis.
At Public Service Electric & Gas, Unger said that drilling exercises at the utility -- the state's largest with nearly 2 million customers -- "suffer from a failure to imagine'' the worst-case scenario. The utilities' restoration plans and drills should anticipate that 75 percent of the company's customers will be affected by outages, a level almost achieved by JCP&L during Hurricane Irene, when 71 percent of its customers were left in the dark.
The report also recommended that PSE&G and JCP&L establish Incident Command Systems (ICS), which it described as a best practice. The system sets up an organization structure in which roles are clearly defined, Unger said.
In the two major storms of 2011, too many executives at two of the utilities had multiple roles, which reduced their effectives, according to Unger.
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