PSE&G on Post-Sandy Progress: Changes Won't Happen Overnight

Tens of thousands were without power for over a week. PSE&G didn't even know if workers were in town. While changes are coming, it will take time, a rep told the council.

Large-scale infrastructure changes in the wake of Super Storm Sandy could be on the way, but a representative from PSE&G says any major upgrades will take time to implement, if they come at all.

Dave Hollenbeck, Director of Public Affairs in Bergen County for the state's largest utility, appeared Wednesday in Ridgewood to address concerns officials have over the utility's lackluster showing in late October, early November.

Hundreds of trees fell and the majority of the village was without power for more than a week, despite the utility posting on its website that juice would return multiple times prior to that date.

Included in the presentation by Hollenbeck was a plea for support. He pressed council officials to support a controversial and costly new PSE&G program designed to modernize the utility's electric and gas systems. 

Dubbed "NJ Energy Strong," PSE&G claims a $3.9 billion plan would bury 20 miles of power lines, strengthen above-ground power lines, protect 30 substations from flood waters, and upgrade hundreds of miles of gas mains. It would be implemented over the course of ten years, paid for by customers.

"If these extraordinary protections had been in place before Sandy, close to half of our customers would not have lost power, and others would have had their power restored much sooner," PSE&G wrote in an e-mail to its 600,000 customers. The utility claims the average ratepayer's bill would decrease by $12 should Energy Strong be approved by the Board of Public Utilities. Other smaller upgrades are already being implemented, he said.

Though Ridgewood fared worse than most neighbors, Bergen County overall has been ground zero for devastating storms in recent years, according to Hollenbeck. Worse news: there are no signs of abatement from the devastating storms, he added. 

According to Hollenbeck, PSE&G's outdated infrastructure doesn't allow for the utility to determine what homes are without electricity. The Energy Strong program, if passed, would help.

"But changes won't happen overnight," Hollenbeck cautioned.

Questioned on "smartgrid technology," the rep said it's "astronomically expensive" and doesn't appear to be on its way in. Burying all the lines underground would also cost massive sums of money he said, adding that underground lines are susceptible to issues just like the traditional ines.

Ridgewood officials have requested from PSE&G that there be a single designated line worker that could spend a few hours telling village worker which lines were live and which were de-electrified. It would allow the village to begin the cleanup effort much faster, they said.

"We had everybody ready and waiting and the problem was the lines," Councilwoman Bernadette Walsh said. "We had done everything we were supposed to do and a public asking us what's next, and we were waiting because there were no linemen." 

But it's not happening, Hollenbeck said, adding that PSE&G has added more line workers that can make those determinations across the county.

Village OEM Director Jeremy Kleiman told Hollenbeck it was particularly jarring that playing by the rules and following directions got officials no closer to solving problems. When out of frustration and desperation they went around the designated protocol, only then did officials see results.

Hollenbeck replied that PSE&G brought in thousands of workers from out of state, but they were not equipped with mobile terminals found in PSE&G vehicles.

"They were doing the work on paper, and they knew what they had to complete," Hollenbeck said. "At the end of the day, they would bring that back to Garden State Plaza and we would update our data at the end of the night."

It dovetailed with Ridgewood's frustration with the utility's communication with officials and residents.

"What was really frustrating and inexplicable was the fact that we would call and we'd say, 'Will you be in Ridgewood today?' and you'd say, 'I don't know,'" Mayor Paul Aronsohn said. In fact, the utility didn't even know if it had workers in town, the mayor said. "To me, to a lot of us, that doesn't make sense. You can't even tell us if you're here?" he added.

Ultimately, Hollenbeck said, most heavy storms only leave customers out of power for hours or days. But PSE&G is committed to better communication and upgrading its infrastructure to avoid another Super Storm Sandy, he said.

"We are looking at different methods to work better with the community."

Brian April 01, 2013 at 01:34 PM
It has been 5 months. It is way past time to stop looking into it and start doing. In 2 weeks they setup and held a concert broadcast around the world but they cant figure out in 5 months how to communicate with lineworkers and get real time data? Let's start simple with less talking and more doing: 1) almost every work crew has at least 1 person with a smart phone so lets start by having a way for them to use the phone to report the work progress, etc. That could already be done for under $50k. Just create a bare bones app that out of state workers could download when reporting to the next emergency. 2) Assign each town, or each few towns, a single line worker who can figure out if wires are live. Give the city administrators and mayors his/her cell phone number. That person's primary responsibility can be to go to those towns and figure out which lines are live so local crews can start doing work to clear streets and properties. Ok. so that solves 2/3rds of the issues. Go ahead and invest the billions on the prevention, that's great. But for the meantime at least the data can help us all figure out how to respond and keep our families safe.
Phil Brooks April 01, 2013 at 02:04 PM
You've got to love management. They've got all the buzzwords down, but when the you-know-what hits the fan, they're left wringing their hands and wondering what what wrong and what they could have done differently. We've had two nasty Halloween storms in a row, both with massive power outages. And what has PSE&G learned from them? Nothing, because they couldn't figure out how to communicate during the SECOND storm when they had a year to figure out how to do it after the FIRST one. That Hollenbeck fellow ought to be fired. His job is Director of Public Affairs in Bergen for PSE&G. And, as public affairs, at least as it applied to PSE&G, were sadly lacking during Sandy, it's obvious that he's ill-equipped to handle his job. Either that, or the people who give him his marching orders are totally clueless and should be canned first.
James Kleimann April 01, 2013 at 02:47 PM
Hollenbeck said he's getting a backup for his position.
Phil Brooks April 01, 2013 at 04:13 PM
James, It might be an answer you don't have but, why, after two major storms with massive power outages, is someone at PSE&G realizing this only now? Judging by what's happened over those last two storms, either Hollenback or the people who give him his marching orders are ill-equipped to do their jobs. So, adding another person to the mix will do what, exactly? After all, it's not like he was swamped and the proper information was there but wasn't getting out fast enough. On the contrary, it appears that there was very little of that proper information in the first place. So, adding a backup to Hollenback would appear to be a waste.
disgusted April 06, 2013 at 01:05 AM
There is one thing we have left out, manpower, Pseg is a publicly traded company, every time they cut manpower either by attrition or layoff the stock price goes up. I was told by an electrical line worker that they used to carry 240 lineworkers throughout the hackensack and seacaucus garages. Now they carry between 50 and 60. Obviously the number is anecdotal but the fact remains pseg would rather cut it's staff and hire out of state workers than keep a well staffed unit. Financially i'm sure it makes great sense but the consumer is the one who suffers.


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