PSE&G explains difficulties of restoring power after disaster

Photo By David VanDeventer
Several telephone poles in a row were split in half and leaning on houses near the border of Union and Maplewood along Burnet Avenue

Restoration of power is a complex process, according to those at the top of the ladder at Public Service Gas and Electric. So complex that customers have little concept how fragile the entire system actually is when it comes to storms like Hurricane Sandy.

“As consumers, we expect to flip on a switch and the lights turn on,” said Art Guida, Director of Internal Affairs for PSE&G at a New Jersey conference for mayors in the spring. But, as he told mayors from municipalities throughout the state, “it’s just not that simple.”

For instance, he explained, few understand that the power grid, from its origin at the generating station to your home or business, is a complex set of grids that transport large volumes of electricity through a series of “step down” transformers and finally to consumers in their homes and businesses. But when a major storm hits, like Tropical Storm Irene, or just two weeks ago, Hurricane Sandy, winds wreak havoc on the distribution “grid,” and that changes everything.

Widespread outages by definition take time to rebuild the network and rebuild is an accurate term, Guida said.

(See related story: Weathering the Storm)

The process of power restoration after a major outage, Guida explained, is designed to get power back on to the most people in the shortest time. Crews, he said, rely on a process recognized as an industry standard to get power back on as quickly as possible. Hospitals, police departments, fire stations and other public health and safety facilities are priority number one.

After critical facilities are restored, the order in which repairs are made follows the path that electricity takes as it comes from the power plants to customers.

Which means that in some cases, Guida said, crews begin working on primary lines that can restore power to thousands of people. Then, he added, they move on to lateral lines that can affect hundreds, secondary lines that affect dozens and finally to service drops at individual homes.

“That is why homes in the same neighborhood can be restored at different times and why businesses are sometimes restored first because of their high traffic locations along primary lines,” Guida said in an article he wrote for the mayors conference.

When it comes to major storms like Sandy, Guida said partnerships work best.

“Every lesson learned following a major weather-related event highlighted the importance of communications prior to, during, and after the storm,” he explained, adding that among every level of government, partnerships are required to manage through a crisis, and must be developed and nurtured in order to be prepared for the next event.

“Many years ago a colleague taught me that when you need a friend is not the time to make a friend,” the director said.

“For local officials, I would think it is invaluable for you to understand what it takes to restore power after a major storm so that you can communicate effectively to your residents,” he told mayors at the conference.

“In the end, we are all working toward the same goal so our communities and individual lives can return to normal,” Guida said.

PSE&G responded last week to questions from LocalSource regarding statements made by out of state utility crews  about the antiquated equipment they encountered.

Although utility crews from Ohio, South Carolina and other states preferred their names or companies not be used, many confided the equipment they were working on after the Hurricane Sandy was so old it was disintegrating in their hands, or was not even made anymore. They also pointed out that trees in the towns most impacted, such as Rahway and Union, had to be cut back more or cut down entirely.

“We don’t care if residents want the trees left up, when it comes to our lines, and ensuring that power will remain during a major storm, we do what we need to do in order to see that occurs,” said one lineman who just shook his head in dismay.

PSE&G spokesperson Fran Sullivan denied their equipment was antiquated and in fact was adamant that Hurricane Sandy was the only reason power took as long as it did to be restored.

“Hurricane Sandy brought an unprecedented amount of damage to utility infrastructure in New Jersey. The suggestion that the age or condition of PSE&G equipment in the field somehow contributed to the extent of the damage is simply untrue — this was an enormously destructive storm,” Sullivan said.

The spokesperson explained that PSE&G has a “long history of providing safe and reliable power to our customers.”

“In addition to the routine maintenance we perform on our infrastructure, PSE&G has also invested more than $1.5 billion in the past year to improve switch stations and substations, run new high voltage lines, improve our underground distribution system and install new equipment in the field such as transformers and capacitors,” she explained, adding that the company expects to invest about the same amount in 2013 on similar improvements.

Sullivan also mentioned that PSE&G won the Reliability One Award as the Mid-Atlantic region’s most reliable electric utility for the past ten years.

“It’s an award we are very proud of and an achievement that would not be possible without solid infrastructure, equipment and maintenance in the field,” she added.

Under normal circumstances, PSE&G said it has a good idea how long it takes to restore service, but, Hurricane Sandy “was not your average storm.” In fact, they said, this storm caused unprecedented damage, twice as much as Hurricane Irene.

“Many of our facilities were flooded by coastal surges, water-logging our equipment and making our stations and facilities difficult to access,” the company explained in response to questions about the amount of time it took to restore power.