Utility Regulator Weighs Options Post Sandy

A plea for power at a home in Medham township, New Jersey

In the wake of Sandy's unprecedented, prolonged blackout, New Jersey's utility regulator plans to explore ways the state's power grid can be made less vulnerable to high winds and flooding.

Sandy marked the third time in 14 months that a weather event threw major portions of the state into blackout. In some cases, for as long as two weeks.

Earlier this week, at the BPU's first public meeting since the storm and outage,  President Bob Hanna said Sandy's impacts on the vital power network couldn't be ignored.

Sustained tropical force winds brought down more than 5,000 utility poles statewide.

"The storm surge and flooding of this critical electric infrastructure is something we simply had not seen and we are going to have to think very seriously about moving sunstations. Elevating them and otherwise hardening them," Hanna said.

Hanna said the BPU would explore the possibility of putting some of the state's electrical system underground where it made strategic sense nothing that burying the entire system would be prohibitively expensive.

Also on the post-Sandy agenda according to local and state officials: insuring all of the state's hospitals, water treatment plants, refineries and other critical facilities have sufficient back up power  and fuel.

The BPU will also study whether or not local municipalities should be more aggressive in removing trees and vegetation that in high wind events can bring power lines down.

Currently, the only way that utilities become aware of power outages is when customers notify the company. "Most people think, and I thought until I took this job, that the utility company knew when my power was out. That is not the case," Hanna said.

Jeff Tittel with the New Jersey Sierra Club says during the power crisis the BPU relied to heavily on the power companies for information.

"You clicked the BPU web site for storm information. They sent you to your utility. They did no independent verification. They did no oversight. They were not out in the field to make sure things were actually what the utility said," Tittel said.

A spokesman for the BPU confirms that the regulator does not independently audit power outages to determine the veracity of the power companies restoration numbers.

Members of New Jersey Congressional delegation confirm they will ask for funding to modernize the state's power grid. That could provide some relief for the state's energy consumers who have to cover the cost of those kinds of improvements through higher rates. New Jersey's rates are already the 6th highest in the nation.

Congressman Frank Pallone represents portions of the Jersey shore that were hardest hit.

"Well that's what we would like to do to get Federal help to upgrade the grid as well. We need Federal dollars," Pallone said.

Elected officials have said that the most common constituent complaint they fielded during the outage was about a lack of information provided by the power companies. 

The BPU plans to conduct a series of public hearings around the state on how utilities performed during Sandy.