A month after receiving it, the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities finally released last week the long-awaited consultant's report on the power outages that resulted from Tropical Storm Irene and the October 2011 snowstorm.
Its 263 pages get into minute details of what happened and provide some important background on issues of statewide concern, including the pros and cons of burying power lines.
But its overall message, that power companies did a less than sterling job in dealing with the massive outages that resulted from both storms, and in doing the maintenance work that could have prevented some of the problems, was already well-known.
There was no reason why Gov. Chris Christie had to wait for the report, done by Emergency Preparedness Partnerships, before calling for legislation to hold the power companies to a higher standard of accountability and impose meaningful penalties for violations.
It's hard to believe the state does not already have uniform standards that companies like Jersey Central Power and Light and Public Service Electric and Gas have to meet. And that the largest fine the BPU can levy against them currently is $100 a day.
no incentive at all. Christie wants to balloon the fines to $25,000 a day, to a maximum of $2 million, with companies unable to recoup those losses in the form of higher rates. That always sounds good, though it's hard to tell how well it works in practice.
Hopefully, the state Division of Rate Counsel would keep tabs on that, as it recently got the board to order JCP&L to file a base rate case by Nov. 1 to determine if the utility is overcharging customers.
Unquestionably, higher penalties are necessary. New Jerseyans should not be forced to try to pump out flooded basements without power or huddle in dark houses under blankets for a week or more because a utility was unprepared. Nor should the companies have been unprepared, given the forecasts and the fact that the companies typically trim trees every four years, leaving plenty areas in which tree limbs can easily take out lines.
Better vegetation management is one of 143 recommendations the report made concering the four power companies that provide service in the state and BPU oversight. The list of recommendations for JCP&L, which handles most of the northwest and the northern shore counties, was the largest. This, again, was no surprise to its customers.
Among other recommendations, the report said the utility should: conduct emergency exercises, learn from its mistakes and implement improvements; develop a rapid damage assessment plan to determine how to prioritize and proceed with repairs immediately after a storm; and use mobile data terminals to send information to and from the field quicker.
The company announced last month it is spending $5 million to add laptops to more than 400 vehicles by next spring. In terms of vegetation management, the report found JCP&L had spent the amount it had budgeted, while PSE&G had spent less.
But were those budgeted amounts enough? The report placed a greater onus on the BPU itself for "the subjective nature of the current vegetation management guidelines on distribution lines." It calls for "more clearly defined requirements." It also called for the increased penalties. Both of these should be done and quickly.
But will politics get in the way? Christie unveiled his proposals and Republicans immediately announced legislation embodying most of them. Hopefully the section that requires the BPU to “develop and enforce performance benchmarks for service reliability,” as the release from Assemblyman Erik Peterson (R-23) states, will covers vegetation management, because prevention is a critical reform.
JCP&L recently announced plans to trim along 3,900 miles of lines in 24 communities, including Basking Ridge, Green Village, Morristown and Parsippany. But since New Jersey’s jobs picture remains bleak, why not double or triple that, putting more people to work and clearing more tree limbs from around power lines?
Almost immediately after Christie’s announcement, Assemblyman Upendra Chivukula (D-Middlesex) a candidate for 7th Congressional district, pointed out that he had already sponsored similar legislation, though his bill does not specify penalty amounts.
Hopefully that does not mean the bill will become a partisan battle, as so many others in Trenton have. These reforms have already waited too long. They need to advance quickly, while the pains of last summer and fall remain fresh in the memory of politicians and before the next big storm hits.