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.
- 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.