FLEMINGTON, NJ – Jersey Central Power & Light – which provides electricity to more than 1.1 million customers in 236 municipalities in New Jersey – has some work to do, state regulators say.
Power outages in Hunterdon that left some residents without power for 11 days in March prompted the state Board of Public Utilities to craft a 76-page report that analyzed JCP&L and other utilities, and how they prepared and reacted to the three storms, and the damage that resulted.
JCP&L spokesperson Ron Marano said the company welcomes the BPU report and is already at work on improvements. It implemented all of the BPU orders issued after Hurricane Sandy and Tropical Storm Irene, has acted on some of the issues revealed in this year's BPU hearings and introduced its Reliability Plus plan earlier this month as part of "moving forward," he said.
The storms on March 2, March 7 and March 21 strained the utilities’ response and led the study “to identify areas for improvement so that the impacts of future storms are minimized and restorations are conducted with the utmost efficiency and effectiveness.”
The agency issued recommendations and orders to each of the utilities in the study.
The report called JCP&L’s weather predictions in advance of the March 2 storm “a severe miscalculation” and because of the error, “JCP&L did not call for additional resources” in advance.
The predictions by other utilities in the study “were much closer to the actual number of outages they experienced ... than JCP&L,” according to the report, which concluded “JCP&L’s outage prediction modeling is deficient” and gave the company 60 days to revised its outage prediction modeling process.
For JCP&L, it noted after the second storm its “inability to acquire external resources before and during the early stages of recovery” hampered restoration. Part of the issue was that JCP&L suffered as it was still working to restore 29,000 customer outages from the previous storm.
To help resolve that, the BPU directed the utilities to implement an “Intrastate Resource Sharing Alliance to ensure resources are shared within the state.”
While JCP&L and other utilities relied upon contractors to perform damage assessment, the report said that although JCP&L more than doubled its force between March 5 and March 12, “its restoration was the longest at 11 days.” That was in part the result of JCP&L’s “inadequate levels of managerial and logistical oversight of an overwhelming number of external resources that quickly ramp up,” the report states.
To improve restoration times, BPU ordered JCP&L to “improve its span of control capabilities and hire or contract additional skilled personnel.”
But that wasn’t the only issue the state took with JCP&L’s damage assessment. Although the company reported the deployment of more than 900 damage assessors and hazard responders during the restoration process, about 70 percent of them were contractors, while “PSE&G employed more than 360 damage assessors, all of which were company employees,” according to the report.
As other state electric providers completed their repairs, they sent hundreds of personnel and contractor crews to assist JCP&L.
“In some instances, this sharing of resources occurred at the behest of the Board” of Public Utilities, the report states, instructing the utilities to “formalize this practice.”
The BPU has ordered JCP&L “to train as many employees as practical to perform second role damage assessment activities” and to “improve its capability to rapidly mobilize trained third-party damage assessors ... and to introduce solutions to maximize their efficiency.” It gave the company 120 days to submit an improvement plan to comply with the order.
BPU also directed JCP&L “to hire or contract with additional personnel to increase the number of workers with specialized skill sets to effectively manage and direct the resources required to recover from a major weather event” and gave the company a 60-day deadline to produce a plan of action.
The first two storms damaged more than 800 utility poles, 517 pole-top transformers and about 68 miles of wire of JCP&L’s overhead infrastructure – problems JCP&L noted at a BPU hearing held in Sergeantsville in May.
While the study notes that many of JCP&L’s wooden utility poles are more than 50 years old and were installed before the proliferation of cable TV and telecommunications attachments, it is unclear “to what extent pole-owning utilities take into account the most up-to-date strength and loading standards when installing new or replacement poles, or performing new joint-use attachments on existing poles. This could be a factor in pole susceptibility to damage and influence the restoration process.”
As a result, the BPU has ordered all pole-owning utilities to conduct a safety audit of their wooden utility poles consistent with the most recent codes on pole strength, and consider “parameters that contribute to the structural integrity of the pole-line infrastructure” during inclement weather. It set a 180-day deadline to complete the audit.
Although between March 5 and March 12 JCP&L more than doubled its workforce, activated four staging sites, and opened three additional sites to handle parking, “they did not appear to have yielded the desired result – an efficient and rapid restoration,” the state reports. The lengthy power outages “suggest that a contributing factor may have been JCP&L’s ability to manage the influx of large numbers of external resources ... Ineffective span of control impedes efficiency.”
The study BPU also ordered JCP&L to improve its call center so that it would know where utility crews are actually working at any time during the restoration process; examine its vegetation management program; and it gave it 180 days to examine adopting “smart meters” rather than rely on customers for outage information.
The BPU says that while moving wire underground – a frequent request by JCP&L critics – “is cost prohibitive,” based on multiple studies “under very limited circumstances undergrounding could be a viable solution to hardening the infrastructure through targeted or selective undergrounding.”
Some improvements may require legislative action, the BPU observed, particularly with regards to tree-trimming.
While more than 1.2 million electric utility customers were impacted by the storms, Verizon and Century Link indicated that they had minimal disruption of service to their customers, according to the BPU.