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NJ Utilities Continue To Defend Performance During Sandy [AUDIO]

The state’s utility companies are defending their performance during Superstorm Sandy after being put in the hot seat once again by the State Assembly Telecommunications and Utilities Committee.

Allison Joyce, Getty Images

On Thursday, the heads of PSE&G, JCP&L, Atlantic City Electric, New Jersey Natural Gas, South Jersey Gas, and Elizabethtown Gas all stood before the committee headed up by Assembly Utilities Chairman Upendra Chivukula.

This is the second time this week the utility heads had to stand before legislators and answer for their performance during Sandy, on Wednesday they stood before the State Senate Budget panel.

Ralph Larossa, President of PSE&G, said the storm hit substantially harder than they expected, causing unanticipated damage in substations.

“So we were prepared, in fact most of those substations would have remained dry in a six foot storm surge, they did not obviously remain dry in a fourteen storm surge.”

LaRossa explained while upgrades like underground wires, electronic smart meters, and others may seem appealing there is a balance between cost and benefit that needs to be reached.

“One switching station, to build redundancy that’s the needed into the system is one hundred million dollars,” explains LaRossa.

The PSE&G head says with many things they are limited by technology. For example, he says unless they switch to Smart meters, which are still expensive, there is no way for the utility to know what customers are without power.

“The fact of the matter is I know whether or not a distribution center is out, because we have feeders to tell us that information but I do not know if a cul-de-sac is out of power. And I certainly don’t know if an individual is out of power unless we’re communicated to by the customer.”

He says what the utility was able to do was enlist the services of a thousand extra line men in addition to the seven hundred person staff they already had in-state. Additionally, LaRossa says their customer service line performed admirable, with only 5.5% of calls dropping off.

Donald Lynch, president of Jersey Central Power and Light, which has been accused by numerous officials for doing an inadequate job communicating, said they were faced with a giant amount of repair work after Sandy.

“So perhaps where we can learn from while we’re busy building transmission lines that are restoring tens and tens of thousands of customers, perhaps there’s an opportunity to say we’re not in your town but we’re restoring this 150 volt line that eventually is going to feed your town.”

The utilities said they also found themselves tied down within the current guidelines for preparedness, specifically tree cutting. LaRossa said they do trims regularly, but in many municipalities there is restriction on how and where they are able to cut.

“We have one town, and I’m not going to get into specifics about the town, but they constantly tell us if the limb is thicker than my finger I don’t want you making a cut. That’s not going to solve the reliability concerns that consumers have.”

One of the universal concerns members of the committee posed to all utilities was getting power restoration information to residents. However, LaRossa says PSE&G and other utilities made it clear to customers to prepare for two weeks without power. He notes with so much destruction it is nearly impossible to be accurate with restoration.

“I would certainly love to be able to tell you ‘this street, this house’ but as you go down the pipeline in the supply chain on the wire, you’re going to be finding additional problems so you set poor expectations for the consumer.”

Lynch says JCP&L’s immediate concern was getting the electrical infrastructure repaired.

“Even if I put the wire up in your house, you were going to have no power, the whole network was down. Over 90 percent of our system was down. There was no power anywhere.”

He added, “I know it’s probably difficult to understand but in an emergency like this with so much damage we really don’t have that block by block plan.”

JCP&L is currently facing scrutiny from the state Rate Council, who is demanding they make a rate case. Claiming the utility sent the majority of profits to their corporate headquarters in Ohio rather than making necessary improvements. JCP&L has a rate increase proposal with the Board of Public Utilities.

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