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According to Hollenbeck, PSE&G's outdated infrastructure doesn't allow for the utility to determine what homes are without electricity.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."