Lessons learned from Sandy lead to costly utility upgrade plans

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Posted: Tuesday, October 29, 2013 12:08 am

If Hurricane Sandy taught public officials and utility companies throughout New Jersey anything, it’s that Mother Nature can render you powerless.

She sometimes has no regard for how much preparation has been made for disaster, how much has been spent on public infrastructure or how much people love their homes and the comforts of modern life.

And every once in awhile, she will demonstrate her immense power and ability to take lives or turn them upside down. And that is just what happened with Hurricane Sandy.

Once the immediate recovery was over, officials started addressing the lessons they had learned and planned changes that were designed to make sure the next disaster would have less impact on people and property. One of the main areas being addressed statewide is making the utility infrastructure better able to withstand severe weather events and getting service restored more quickly when a storm does hit.

Sandy’s historic impact

“Our system, while it is reliable, it really wasn’t resilient to this type of weather,” said Kristine Lloyd, a spokeswoman for the Public Service Electric & Gas Co., the state’s largest energy provider. “It was so much bigger of a job than we had ever seen.”

During Sandy, nearly 2 million of the company’s 2.2 million electric customers — households and businesses — statewide lost power. About 113,000 of the company’s 170,000 customers in Burlington County experienced outages.

Sandy caused more than twice as many power interruptions as Tropical Storm Irene in 2011. More than 2,500 of the company’s poles were destroyed and crews had to respond to 48,000 locations with downed trees, according to documents submitted to the state’s Board of Public Utilities.

Also, about 150 of the company’s electric substations and switching stations were damaged during the storm and 33 percent of its transmission lines were impacted. The company responded to more than 2.1 million service calls from Oct. 29 to Nov. 11.

“The flooding aspect totally caught us by surprise,” said Ed Gray, PSE&G’s director of transmission and distribution engineering. “Stations that had not flooded in 60 years, they flooded. That was the number one eye-opener.”

However, flooding wasn't the major issue in the county. Rather it was the downed trees that caused outages during and after the storm.

Ron Morano, a spokesman for Jersey Central Power & Light, which serves 1.1 million customers statewide and 15,740 in Burlington County, pointed out that Sandy was the third major weather event in two years to significantly impact the company’s equipment. Hurricane Irene and a snow and ice storm in October 2011 also created a large number of outages.

“Three times, the same people were impacted,” Morano said. During Sandy, the company experienced 1.3 million outages, with some customers losing power more once during or after the storm, he added.

South Jersey Gas, which has 360,000 customers in the state’s southernmost counties, including Burlington, experienced 160 service interruptions — but the storm certainly revealed some vulnerabilities in the utility's infrastructure, said Paul Zuccarino, the company’s vice president of distribution and operations.

“The weather is changing and we have to worry about it now. All of the companies said, ‘If it happened once, it can happen again,’ ” Zuccarino said. “The weather event caused us to have a higher awareness of any system vulnerabilities.”

How utilities responded

Sandy’s historic nature served as a valuable lesson, and the major utility companies are proposing costly programs to strengthen their infrastructure.

PSE&G has proposed a $3.9 billion, 10-year plan, referred to as “Energy Strong,” to strengthen its electric and gas infrastructure. The proposal sits in front of the state Board of Public Utilities; the company's last public hearing was Oct. 7 in Cherry Hill. The BPU is expected to hold hearings on the proposal in early 2014, before it decides whether to approve it.

The proposal includes: $1.7 billion to raise, relocate or add flood protection to 31 electric stations impacted by storms or located in newly designated flood areas; $1 billion to replace and modernize 750 miles of low-pressure gas mains in flood-prone areas; $454 million for “smart grid technology” aimed at increasing the ability to detect problems and make fixes; $215 million to improve pole systems; $200 million to improve the system to reduce outage length; $60 million to bury distribution lines where that is most needed; and $140 million to protect gas facilities in flood zones, including one near the Delaware River in Burlington City.

The plan also includes measures to improve communication with county and municipal officials, relocate some emergency centers away from flood-prone areas, and increase public information by using social media and other technology.

A proposal of this scope will impact customers financially.

According to company figures, the typical residential electric customer, who uses 7,360 kilowatt hours annually, would see an annual increase of $4.52 a month in the first year of the program, increasing to $60.48 in year six.

A gas heating customer using 660 therms every year would see an annual increase of $6.88 in the first year, increasing to $58.40 a year in year six. The increases are associated with the cost of the program, not any other rate increases that may be proposed.

The planned improvements are in addition to the $290 million PSE&G has already spent due to Sandy response and repairs, officials said.

Jersey Central Power & Light plans to spend nearly $200 million to strengthen its infrastructure, including replacing utility poles and circuits and building a new substation. Many of its infrastructure improvements are planned for outside the county, but some are aimed at improving communications and disaster response locally, Morano said.

The company has already made circuit improvements in Pemberton Township and Southampton, Morano said. Sandy also cost the company about $630 million for response and repairs.

Zuccarino said South Jersey Gas is proposing $280 million in improvements, mainly to eliminate low-pressure gas mains on the barrier islands. Flooding was his company's main issue during Sandy, he said, adding that high-pressure mains should perform better during such weather events.

Gray said PSE&G’s plan also focuses on technology designed to enable the company to remotely identify where system problems are happening without having to send personnel to find the trouble spot.

“You have a lot of prioritization that has to go on,” Gray said, even though the company increases its manpower by five times in such severe weather.

It takes time to identify where lines are down, according to the PSE&G official, who said priority is given to restoring power to emergency facilities and the areas with the most outages.

Dealing with trees

Vegetation management is also a major concern for utility companies. All of them have vegetation management or tree trimming programs. However, as Lloyd pointed out, Sandy was simply no match for the thousands of trees that were uprooted and fell on or destroyed power lines.

PSE&G's "Energy Strong" includes programs aimed at enhancing towns’ ability to help the company respond to or avoid severe and lengthy outages. One would stockpile generators so they could be sent to facilities identified by local emergency coordinators. The other would establish municipal vegetation management plans.

Mike Coyle, public affairs manager for PSE&G, said the company works with Burlington County communities to determine which trees near utility lines need to be trimmed or removed. If the "Energy Strong" plan is approved, the company would work closer with towns to establish plans to trim trees and replace trees deemed unstable or dangerous, he said.

“Some municipalities are very proactive in helping us identify trees that are a danger,” Coyle said, citing Southampton as one of those communities.

Mount Holly and Willingboro have established forestry programs that will inventory trees and determine where reforestation is needed after tree removals. Having a state-approved forestry management plan helps municipalities reduce exposure to litigation and seek grant monies to help with reforestation, Coyle said.

“Proactive trimming and vegetation management is the best way to ready ourselves,” Coyle said. “A storm like Sandy or Irene is going to take down trees.”

Rich Brevogel, director of public works for Willingboro, said the township has removed about 50 trees this year that were deemed potential hazards.

“We continue to assess our trees in the township and determine the ones that can cause the most potential damage,” Brevogel said.

Certified tree expert Gary Lovallo said things to consider when planting a tree are: its type; how tall it will grow; how much water it needs to be healthy; how much and what type of soil it needs to sustain healthy roots; and its location.

For existing trees, he said to consider the “four D's” — (is it) dead, dying, diseased or decayed? — when determining if a tree could fall in a storm.

Looking to the future, utility and government officials agree that stronger infrastructure, better communication between the private sector and all levels of government, keeping the public better informed, and having updated emergency procedures will help ensure the next significant weather event has less impact on the state.

“It’s clear that Sandy, Hurricane Irene and the October ice storm in 2011 represent extreme weather patterns that have become commonplace,” PSE&G chairman and CEO Ralph Izzo said in February when the “Energy Strong” initiative was unveiled. “It’s equally clear that how we live and do business is so dependent on energy that any outage is hard to tolerate.

"Sandy was a defining event for all of us," Izzo added. "The state’s entire energy infrastructure needs to be rethought of in light of weather conditions that many predict will continue to occur.”

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