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Surviving the next Sandy

NJ utilities say infrastructure upgrades will help

After successive winter storms left thousands of New Jerseyans without power for extended periods, residents could be forgiven for asking: Have we made any progress in bolstering the state’s power grid in the six years since Superstorm Sandy?Power companies say the answer is yes, and more is coming.

“Our priority throughout these two devastating nor’easters has been to safely restore customers to service,” said Ron Morano, spokesman for Morristown-based Jersey Central Power & Light. “We will work with the Board of Public Utilities to evaluate our performance and look for any improvements we can make going forward.”

JCP&L spent about $308 million last year on transmission and distribution projects, including building new transmission lines and installing voltage-regulating equipment and automated controls, he said.

Gov. Phil Murphy seems unconvinced, labeling storm-recovery efforts by JCP&L and others unacceptable.

More progress will be made, Morano insisted. He said the utility will spend $357 million in 2018 on “infrastructure projects and other work to enhance customer reliability” across the utility’s 13-county northern and central New Jersey service area.

The work includes completing underground and overhead circuit improvements in Morris County, replacing cable, enhancing connection points where two circuits join and relocating transformers. Other upgrades will include replacing 24 substation circuit breakers to automatically disconnect from the system when a problem occurs to reduce the length of power outages and the number of customers affected.

Other power companies said they’re also doing their part.

“At Atlantic City Electric, we are committed to providing our customers with a modern, reliable and resilient electric system,” spokesman Frank Tedesco said.

 The utility has invested “hundreds of millions of dollars during the last five years and more than $138 million in 2017 alone” to update the local energy grid and install new technology, Tedesco added.

He added: “Because of these efforts, during the past five years the number of electric outages has decreased by more than 40 percent and outage length has been reduced by 18 percent. In 2017, customers experienced the lowest average number of electric outages in the company’s history, as well as the fastest restoration times ever.”

Tedesco said the average number of outages decreased from the previous low by 17 percent.

“When customers did experience an outage, we restored power an average of seven minutes faster than the previous record set in 2015,” he said. “This ranks among the top quartile of utilities across the country.”

Atlantic City Electric plans additional infrastructure and system upgrades, including increased technology monitoring to automatically alert the system of disruptions. And last month, the utility applied for New Jersey Board of Public Utilities approval of a $338 million Infrastructure Investment Program for the next four years.

PSE&G spokesperson Karen Johnson has some answers.

“Hurricane Irene and Superstorm Sandy in 2011 and 2012, respectively, brought major flooding to Newark Bay and to other waterways that caused substantial water damage to substations,” Johnson recalled. “Since then, we’ve taken steps to fortify those stations to exceed [Federal Emergency Management Agency] flood height standards by a foot.”

PSE&G’s $1.2 billion Energy Strong program raised and reinforced electric substations and switching stations, replaced vulnerable natural gas mains and added technology to prevent critical customers from losing power.

“When the Energy Strong upgrades are complete, 490,000 PSE&G customers previously impacted would not lose power from flooding,” said John Latka, senior vice president of electric and gas operations. “And customers who did lose power would be restored more quickly.”

Other upgrades included raising flood-sensitive equipment like gas heaters, instruments and transducers, among others.