Assembly members press utilities on Sandy-related problems

TRENTON – Assembly members got their chance today to do what senators did Wednesday: Scrutinize utilities’ hurricane response.

Many of the same witnesses who appeared before the Telecommunications and Utilities Committee today reiterated the previous day’s testimony before the Senate Budget panel of Wednesday: that electric companies, faced with a storm of unprecedented magnitude, worked tirelessly to turn lights back on for millions of Sandy-beleaguered residents and businesses.

The committee was told that 9,000 poles and 100,000 transmission lines were damaged by the storm that took in 900 square miles of destruction.

Forecasters correctly predicted the amount of rain but missed on wind gusts and storm surges, said Ralph LaRossa, President & CEO of PSE&G. A predicted 6-foot storm surge, which switching stations could handle, became 13-foot surges, he said.

Utility officials listed areas needing improvement: communication, infrastructure redundancies, and tree-trimming. But it all carries a cost.

LaRossa pointed out that one switching station’s redundancy work could cost $100 million.

At the outset, Chairman Upendra Chivukula acknowledged the crews who worked seven days a week, 16 hours a day to restore power under sometimes hazardous conditions.

Committee member Angel Fuentes called it eye-opening to see buildings on top of cars and acknowledged the frustration of towns’ mayors.

Committee member Gregory McGuckin said thousands of his constituents, JCP&L customers, remain without power. “I want to know what steps have been taken since last year’s storm, because frankly, I didn’t see a difference.”

Ratepayer Advocate Stephanie Brand said, as she did Wednesday, that “If we try to spend our way out of this problem, all we’ll do is increase costs for ratepayers,’’ and a measured response is needed.

Vince  Malone, Atlantic City Electric vice president, said Sandy hit right through Southern New Jersey as opposed to taking a usual path skirting the coast, and their worst-hit area was the barrier islands, where 16 substations were impacted to some degree.

Considering the unprecedented nature of the storm and the preparations his company took, Malone took issue with the ‘F’ grade handed out to utilities on Wednesday by the Board of Public Utilities.

He said they have about 1,700 customers still affected by the storm and they are working with them.

Their overhead system along the barrier islands actually held up well, company officials said, an observation which Chivukula seconded.

Donald Lynch, President of JCP&L,  said 1.3 million customers lost power in their coverage areas, which include some of the state’s “most heavily-treed” areas, including the far northwest.

Lynch and other utility officials expressed sympathy with customers, especially the ones who waited the longest to have power restored.

Queried about communications problems by committee members McGuckin and Donna Simon, Lynch said they got involved with social media following Hurricane Irene in 2011, but he admitted there always is room to improve.

McGuckin pressed on the issue of why JCP&L couldn’t tell people when specific neighborhoods would have power back, Lynch said they are working to improve that, but that providing the next day’s job orders to the public wouldn’t necessarily help due to the format they are in.

McGuckin asked if JCP&L should withdraw its rate hike request in light of what’s happened, and Lynch said that is a question for the parent company, and McGuckin asked him to communicate that concern to them.

Assembly members press utilities on Sandy-related problems