BPU, utilities seek to reassure lawmakers post-Sandy

TRENTON – The Board of Public Utilities sought to reassure lawmakers Thursday that when the next super storm hits New Jersey, utilities will be able to restore power more quickly and communicate better with customers as they are doing it.

BPU Secretary Kristi Izzo said that among other things, utilities must use a central command system for emergency response, monitor substations for flood risks, have daily conference calls with mayors, use more social media, and have separate web pages for each municipality.

“There will always be outages,’’ she told the board, no matter how many steps are taken in advance.

Izzo did point out that it took 13 days to restore 2.9 million customers’ service, compared to Mississippi, for example, which after Hurricane Katrina, took 16 days.

“We know that’s little comfort to those who were left in the cold and the dark,” she said.

And members of The Assembly Telecommunications and Utilities Committee expressed concern about the lack of communication during last year’s storm.

Wayne DeAngelo, Donna Simon and others repeatedly turned to that issue.

“How do we get the word out,’’ particularly for seniors who don’t use social media, Simon asked.  She suggested having representatives for each county, which Izzo said is required.  Izzo said utilities are hiring additional public affairs representatives as well.

She said cost-benefit analyses will be conducted going forward, and Chairman Upendra Chivukula keyed on what it is costing BPU to have a consultant, and what percentage of the rates paid goes toward infrastructure and maintenance. Izzo said she would provide that information for the committee.

He also questioned how can BPU know if utilities are conducting proper inspection if logs are not kept. “These poles are not being inspected properly,” he said in reference to the many utility poles that were damaged during Sandy.

Both today and in a hearing in December, Chivukula made clear his displeasure with BPU’s oversight of these problems.

Izzo did say that one of BPU’s concerns is to get the utilities to improve and refine their estimates of power restoration timetables.

Utilities

Rick Thigpen, a vice president with Public Service Enterprise Group, said “There is absolutely no doubt we are in a new world’’ as a result of the three major storms that hit New Jersey over the last few years. PSEG has about 2.2 million customers in New Jersey across 236 towns and 10 counties.

He reminded the committee that Sandy was unprecedented and unprepared for, and he said a dialogue will continue regarding BPU’s 103-point report.

The effective restoration of power to all customers as quickly as possible is the priority, he said, and he acknowledged that communications remains a priority during an age when society is so dependent on electricity.

He said trees on wires was the major reason for many of the outages. Earlier today, the committee released a bill granting utilities more power to remove vegetation.

But while supporting numerous initiatives – such as utilities training local officials in utilities’ processes to improve communications – Thigpen injected a cautionary note. “This only works if it’s done in an affordable fashion,’’ he said. Utilities, he said, don’t want to make the state even more expensive for customers.

Regarding the specter of rate hikes, he said that some charges will be coming off utility bills in the next few years and with the lower cost of natural gas that will help minimize rate hikes.  He said that for the next year or two some small increase could be seen but overall he said there could be a period of flat rates.

In response to a question from Chivukula, Thigpen said that if Sandy had not occurred, the utility would not have requested $2.5 billion over the next five years.

But Sandy – which damaged stations in existence since the FDR administration – changed the landscape, he told the panel.

BPU, utilities seek to reassure lawmakers post-Sandy