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Column: BPU Says JCP&L Fell Short During Irene

State utilities board plans to hire a consultant to recommend improvements

Last week, the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities’ first report on the biggest power outage of the year confirmed what many in the Morris County area already knew: Compared to the state’s other utilities, JCP&L did a lousy job.

Issued last Wednesday, the preliminary report gives initial recommendations for changes in procedures based on power companies’ responses to Tropical Storm Irene—the National Weather Service now says it was not a hurricane when it hit New Jersey. It also began to place blame for power outages that lasted for more than a week not once, but twice, in roughly two months, the second being the late October snowstorm.

“While all of the utilities experienced challenges during these severe weather events, it was apparent that JCP&L, in particular, was deficient in its storm restoration process, especially during Hurricane Irene,” according to the report. “Certain practices of the electric utilities, particularly JCP&L, must be reexamined and the planning and preparation scaled up to drive a higher level of performance, particularly in the area of communications, estimating outage restoration, supplemental crew mobilization and mitigation of tree related damages.”

When Irene swept across Jersey on Aug. 28, it left 1.9 million customers—nearly half of all those in the state—without power. The October snow storm on October 29 affected 1 million, mostly in North and Central Jersey.

“The impact on these individuals and their communities cannot be overstated,” the report stated.

The BPU held eight hearings with the public and municipal officials,during which, “many testified as to the impact including spoiled food, loss of water service, cold showers, loss of telephone/internet, heat, and inability to pump water out of basements which in many cases caused flooding in homes.”

Many more people complained about JCP&L than about PSE&G or the smaller companies providing power in the state.

The evidence:

  • As a result of Irene, 40 percent of PSE&G’s customers lost power and 95 percent were restored within 98 hours. JCP&L had almost 100,000 fewer affected but they represented more than 70 percent of all of JCP&L's customers, and it took nearly twice as long to get the lights back on for 98 percent of customers. All JCP&L customers had their power back after 224 hours, while all PSE&G customers were back on the grid within 176 hours.
  • PSE&G and two other electric utilities had asked for and gotten mutual aid utility crews or private contractors or both before Irene hit and had them ready in the state by the time the storm hit. But JCP&L did not. It did not have any outside help working in the state until “nearly a full day after the other utilities had their crews working.”
  • JCP&L reported that vegetation, usually tree limbs, created problems in 5,555 cases, more than twice the number PSE&G reported.
  • The BPU’s customer service office fielded 139 complaints against JCP&L, four times more than those made against PSE&G.

The report discusses numerous other problems with JCP&L: municipal officials had a hard time getting information out of JCP&L and customers could not reach the utility; the estimated restoration times quoted by the company were inaccurate; JCP&L’s system design or maintenance or both may have contributed to the number of outages.

This is only the beginning. The BPU is expected to issue a contract next month to a consultant to do a more in-depth examination of issues involving vegetation management, crew mobilization, communication and restoration prioritization during such storms. The consultant will be charged specifically with asking JCP&L tough questions.

The utility’s customers hope the next step in the process will be even more enlightening and lead to substantial changes that will keep the lights on, or get them back on quicker, in the future.

Colleen O'Dea is a writer, editor, researcher, data analyst, web page designer and mapper with almost three decades in the news business. Her column appears Mondays.

heretoolong December 20, 2011 at 02:18 PM
a little judgmental today, are we?
Ron Swanson December 20, 2011 at 02:31 PM
I suggest you check your facts because you are extremely uninformed on this topic. None of the crews brought in from out of state were working 24/7. None. They were contractually allowed to quit by 7PM to allow time for dinner and travel to their hotels. At most these crews were working 7-8 hours each day, while JCP&L's website lied to customers about working round the clock. There was ample coverage in the press about crews sitting idle awaiting work orders from JCP&L that never came. And before you attack the "city fathers" as clueless, are you aware of the immense effort that went into trying to work on a plan with JC&L, which wasn't even taking calls from mayors and town administrators? City Hall was not closed - it was staffed swith folks trying to get a respone from JCP&L. When town officials did track someone down, the bureaucrats at JCP&L had no plan or meaningful status to report, leaving elected officials and others looking clueless. I know in the end it was the Chatham Borough engineer who literally had to tail out of state work crews to personally make sure they didn't leave Chatham until the lights were finally on. Kudos to him for that, as no credit goes to JCP&L. You speak in broad generalities without having been in the loop at all about what was really going on, i.e. supreme incompetence on the part of JCP&L.
chatham98 December 20, 2011 at 10:07 PM
Frank - Come-on --------You're acting too shallow to be taken seriously!
Josh Dubnick December 23, 2011 at 01:02 AM
The problem is not with the line workers whether from Alabama, New Jersey or Michigan. The problem is with cost cutting by the parent company pure and simple. First Energy merged with GPU and reduced the number of employees that they have. First Energy decided to scale back tree trimming and in 2003 caused most of the Northeast to go dark. (thankfully, Hopatcong was spared) If JCP&L were required to double the number of line crews and have double the number of trucks, some costs would go up and electric rates would increase somewhat but if you look at your electric bill, you can see how much of it is for delivery vs. supply. The delivery portion is about half, maybe a bit more since natural gas is down so much. If labor is even 2/3 of that, then the most electric rates would go up is 20-25%. You could save much of that by "un-rolling back" the light bulb rule that congress just rolled back. The cost of a refrigerator full of food, a couple of night in a hotel, frozen pipes, etc. are way more than the increase in electric bills to double the number of crews (and cut in half the restoration time) Not to mention the fact that with all these extra employees, preventive maintenance could reduce the number of outages significantly.
Josh Dubnick December 23, 2011 at 01:06 AM
continued--- More to the point the state and towns should pass laws and ordinances stating that any power line that is not energized for 24 hours is considered abandoned. The towns should then seize those lines and either create their own power utilities or turn them over to another utility that can bid and will guarantee reliability. (or at least standards for maintenance and guaranteed staffing levels and response time) In Sussex County there's a rural electric cooperative where the rate payers actually own the utility. According to their web site after the October snow storm, they were fully restored 2 days after the storm. And their rates are much lower than JCP&L. It's time for Hopatcong to use eminent domain and seize JCP&L's abandoned lines and turn them over to Sussex Rural or to start its own utility like Park Ridge and Madison.

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