A bill identified as a priority by the head of the Board of Public Utilities that would increase the fines electric companies face for mishandling storms took just one step through the process before most of the Legislature went on recess.

Utility companies that don’t meet standards can be fined $100 a day. The “Reliability, Preparedness and Storm Response Act” would crank that up to $25,000 per violation, up to $2 million per storm, and has been endorsed by the Assembly Homeland Security and State Preparedness Committee.

“It’s clear that I think there’s more that can be done,” said Assemblyman Dan Benson, D-Mercer. “In working with the stakeholders, what we’ve heard is the ability to fine by the BPU is antiquated. And so this bill updates that.”

Benson said the bill is “very much needed.” The full Assembly unanimously passed it in 2018, as did a Senate committee, but it never got a final vote in the Senate last session. Benson said it was held for the BPU to implement its own changes after a damaging storm.

“There’s clearly areas where we can improve, and we just want to make sure the BPU has all the authority to do so and that we as ratepayers are getting our return on investment in the way of service that we’re paying every month on our bills,” Benson said.

Things are already improving under directives issued by the BPU after hurricanes Sandy and Irene and a series of March 2018 storms, said Christina Gordillo Farrell, director of government affairs for the New Jersey Utilities Association.

This past winter was a better one for restoring service, she said, a sign that improved planning and resiliency works.

“We think it’s important to refocus the conversation, so looking at incentives rather than penalties,” Farrell said. “Given that we have some examples to show that prove incentives for resiliency investments work – not to mention the added benefit of creating jobs.”

Farrell said potential areas for improvement include installation of smart meters and vegetation removal.

“We are moving in the right direction, and we’re pleased to see that serious discussion around infrastructure hardening and resiliency projects is taking place,” she said.

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Benson said spending on reliability upgrades is important but comes with a responsibility for improved service.

“They’re guaranteed a return on their investment. As ratepayers, we want to make sure that we have reliability that is promised in that investment,” he said.

Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5. Contact him at michael.symons@townsquaremedia.com.

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