Buried lines, generator loans: Lawmakers scrutinize power outages
The heads of the four electric utilities operating in New Jersey were summoned to a virtual Assembly hearing Wednesday looking into their handling of Tropical Storm Isaias, with JCP&L bearing the brunt of the frustration about outages that for some lasted a week.
JCP&L president James Fakult said Isaias cut power to more than 70% of the utility’s customers in New Jersey and that the 778,000 outages were far more than the 450,000 that had been projected. He also said the storm did an unusual amount of damage to its transmission system.
“I’m proud of the restoration curve,” Fakult said. “Every storm though is different, so the impacts to the territories are all different.”
Assemblyman Greg McGuckin, R-Ocean, said JCP&L did better than it had after after Superstorm Sandy in 2012 or Hurricane Irene in 2011 but is still frustrating.
“It’s a four-way race here, and JCP&L seems to come in fourth every single time,” McGuckin said.
Mayors testified to the Legislature about their frustrations. Marlboro Mayor Jon Hornik called JCP&L incapable and asked for the chance to switch to a different company. Robbinsvile Mayor David Fried said he is filing a lawsuit against JCP&L for the second time over its service.
“The other assemblyman talked about the fact that JCP&L routinely comes in fourth. That’s only because we have four power companies,” Fried said. “If there were 20, I have every confidence they could come in 20th.”
The heads of PSE&G, Atlantic City Electric and Orange & Rockland also testified.
Among the ideas kicked around by lawmakers is the prospect of burying more utility lines so the grid is less vulnerable to wind and ice.
“Understand more in the rural areas where dwellings are farther apart is a different thing, but when you’re in tightly knit city communities, why utilities don’t utilize more underground?” said Assemblyman Wayne DeAngelo, D-Mercer.
David Daly, president and chief executive officer of PSE&G, said underground lines cost four to six times more than overhead ones but that any residential development of three or more homes has had them since 1973.
“We have been doing it areas where it clearly makes sense for many, many years. Otherwise we look at it on a case-by-case basis and it’s really this balance of cost and reliability,” Daly said.
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Assemblyman Clinton Calabrese, D-Bergen, said in towns like Cliffside Park and Edgewater that have seen a lot of recent development, PSE&G resists buried lines sought by local officials.
“There has been a lot of growth, and I can tell you first hand that PSE&G does not prefer to put these wires underground because it’s more work,” Calabrese said.
Assemblywoman Angela McKnight, D-Hudson, said electric utilities should have to dip into a reserve of money to issue gift cards to people whose food spoils, or at least coordinate with food panties to help people who are without power.
“People are home, and some of them are home with their children, and water and ice is just not enough,” said McKnight, who also said power companies should consider distributing flashlights, batteries and generators.
Assemblywoman Angelica Jimenez, D-Hudson, said power utilities should have to reimburse municipalities for expenses incurred when police officers are stationed by downed utility lines awaiting repair during extended outages.
“This is a huge cost, especially during this storm and I think during this time of this COVID, of this pandemic, we’re really scarce on police departments, on manpower,” said Jimenez, who said some departments are short-staffed with officers are out sick or in quarantine.
Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5. Contact him at email@example.com.