Assembly Hearings on Utilities’ Response to Hurricane Sandy

Today, the Assembly Telecommunications and Utilities Committee held a hearing on the response of New Jersey’s electric and gas companies during and after Hurricane Sandy. Committee Chair Assemblyman Upendra Chivukula opened the meeting praising utility workers for working under very difficult conditions and expressed thanks that the number of injuries and deaths were kept low for a storm of this magnitude. He, along with several other members of the committee, had toured the affected area, and each noted that it’s difficult to fathom the extent of the damage without seeing it firsthand.

Prior to the testimony from the heads of the utilities, the committee heard from Stefanie Brand, the state’s Director of the Division of Rate Counsel. This is the entity that approves rate hike requests and is charged with representing the interests of consumers. Brand implored the committee not to just throw money at the problems encountered, but rather to integrate remediation costs within the current rate structure approval process.

Some of the proposed solutions that have been discussed in the aftermath of the storm were deemed too expensive by Brand and the utility chiefs. Underground power transmission lines, while less vulnerable to high winds, cost about $1 million per mile, and would be vulnerable to salt water effects in the barrier islands. (Interestingly, the above-ground power poles on Long Beach Island survived remarkably well.) While the utilities’ ability to pinpoint outages to the house level would be enhanced by “smart meters”, these too were deemed too expensive by Brand and the utilities. PSE&G head Ralph LaRossa said it would cost $1 billion to outfit all homes with these meters.

Utility CEOs recommended that the public be better educated on what is and what is not possible in order to set expectations adequately. Each time the utility chiefs brought this up, Chairman Chivukula reminded them that BPU President Hanna had given the utility companies a grade of “F” in their ability to communicate with customers.

Utilities relied on social media (and in the case of Atlantic City Electric, reverse 911) as their primary means of keeping customers informed.

So where do we go from here? I asked that to Chairman Chivukula after the hearing. His response is below. Other interesting tidbits from the hearing are below the fold.

  • The Sandy disaster manifested itself differently than last year’s Hurricane Irene did. Consequently, the electric substations that received additional flood protection after Irene were not the ones that were flooded by Sandy.

  • Two of the utility chiefs specifically thanked union workers for their efforts.

  • One of the side benefits of all those solar panels on utility poles is that the panels can report when the poles are down.

  • One of the biggest problems the electric utilities faced was fallen trees on power lines. But the utilities are not permitted to take preventative actions if the trees are outside their easement areas.

  • New Jersey Natural Gas imported technical  personnel from New Orleans whose experience on restoration after Katrina was invaluable.

  • In addition to the wind damage and power loss, gas service on the barrier islands was hampered by the formation of over 100 sink holes, and restoration was hampered by the piles of debris.

  • Gas meters that are flooded may still work when the waters recede, but they are unsafe. They should be checked and/or replaced before usage re-starts.

  • Elizabethtown Gas lost their call center during the storm. They said they seamlessly transferred those operations to a backup center in Atlanta.

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