Thousands of routine power outages in New Jersey — caused by everything from faulty equipment to brittle tree branches to wayward animals — are being tracked by state regulators for the first time as electric utilities provide an unprecedented look at their day-to-day operations.
The gathering of detailed reports reflects an effort by the state Board of Public Utilities to enhance its oversight of the state's electric distribution companies.
The filings do not include data on such headline-grabbing events as Superstorm Sandy and other major disruptions, which are documented in other reports kept by the BPU. Rather, the newly released data give the public a first glimpse of smaller problems — where and why they start, how many customers are left in the dark and for how long — even when nothing extraordinary is happening. The nearly minute-by-minute catalogs provide some of the most detailed information yet of trouble on the electrical grid, even on problems that affect just one customer.
Stephanie Brand, director of the state Division of Rate Counsel, whose office advocates for consumers in utility matters, says this gives the BPU a way "to identify the poorest performing areas of the distribution system."
"I know people who — forget a storm like Sandy — people who with the slightest gust of wind their electricity goes out," Brand told The Record of Woodland Park. "And then there are other people who never go out. I think it would allow the board to determine the areas where there may be local pockets of problems that they want the utilities to address."
Over six months from April through September last year, the three electric distribution companies serving northern and central New Jersey, provided data on more than 9,000 instances when power went out for any reason other than a major event, according to an analysis by The Record. The filings, detailing disruptions that lasted more than five minutes, show that a total of 1.7 million customers were affected. Typically, the outages lasted roughly 3½ hours and affected about 180 customers.
The reports show the grid is largely sound, with fewer than 10,000 customers affected any given day for the three companies — Jersey Central Power & Light, Public Service Electric and Gas, and Rockland Electric — or about a quarter of 1 percent of the roughly 3.4 million they serve.
The information is some of the most comprehensive to hit the desks of state officials; companies were already required to report on more significant outages — like interruptions that affect 10,000 customers, a hospital or an airport for a half-hour or more — and major events like Sandy and Tropical Storm Irene.
This means, for example, they now know when 172 PSE&G customers lost power last May for 76 minutes because of a tree problem in Rutherford. Or that six Rockland Electric customers came off the grid on July 4 because of equipment failure in Wyckoff, and the company brought the first three back in under two hours.
The utilities board, which oversees the electric distribution companies and sets rates, voted to require new, more comprehensive reporting on power outages and circuit performance a year ago in the aftermath of Sandy and an investigation into company responses to two other big storms.
"The fact is that we care not only about the response to storms, but we care about everyday reliability," said Brand. "We don't want to let all these storms distract us from the fact that they need to maintain reliability during blue-sky conditions."
The information in the reports will be used to identify problem areas or equipment that may warrant further investigation.
The BPU declined to comment on the initiative, which also has the utilities reporting annually on the reliability of each circuit and quarterly on low-performing substations. The first two quarterly submissions on outages were recently released to The Record — with data identifying circuits and substations redacted, the BPU said, for security reasons — following a lawsuit brought by the newspaper after its requests for information were denied.
While the data don't include major events — defined in part as those that affect at least 10 percent of customers in an operating area and are considered beyond the control of a utility — the effects of weather on the grid are nevertheless evident in the numbers.
Overall, in the six-month period, the highest number of disruptions came in June and July. Six of the 10 worst days had temperatures of at least 95 and two hit or exceeded 100. One had over an inch of rain and another nearly 4 inches. The fewest outages were reported on days when the temperatures ranged from 55 to 79, and there was little or no rain.
For Public Service, Jersey Central and Rockland Electric, equipment issues and problems with trees trumped other causes. The biggest outages in Bergen and Passaic counties in the six months came on July 11 when an equipment problem beginning in Englewood affected 6,481 customers and another on May 4 that originated in Ridgefield when 4,332 customers lost power.
"We do this kind of analysis for ourselves anyway," said Mike Donovan, a spokesman for Rockland Electric, which serves customers in all or part of 20 Bergen municipalities and two in Passaic. "The more customers know about the way the system operates, we feel that that's a good thing. There's an enormous amount of work you never see that goes into the system and now this kind of brings out that work to see what we do to make sure the electric system works as reliably as it does."
Differences in the companies — their populations, terrain and even the way they filed their reports — make comparisons difficult.
But some general observations are possible from the early data. On average, PSE&G posted fewer interruptions of shorter duration in the six months than did JCP&L, but more customers were affected. JCP&L's territory includes more rural areas to the north and Shore towns, while PSE&G's turf is more concentrated and includes the state's six largest cities.
JCP&L has more than a million customers, and PSE&G some 2.2 million. Rockland Electric, with 72,000 New Jersey customers, meanwhile, on average posted the longest outages in the six months, but they affected the fewest customers.
State officials consider the reports a work in progress and are devising the best approach to compiling the voluminous information. A recent BPU order on the new reporting requirements said several "important changes" are under discussion by a work group, which is attempting to unify the response formats.
The initial outage reports are not without their problems — the electric distribution companies did not all provide the same information in the same format and only half provided it in spreadsheets.
State officials were looking for information to be presented showing the municipalities affected by the outage, but the three companies said what is listed is the location where the problem arose. An outage may emanate from an issue at a substation — in which case its location may be listed — and spread beyond the borders of the community where the failure began.
In its analysis of the data, The Record counted service interruptions that arose at the same time in the same municipality yielding a total of more than 9,000 disruptions.
Even so, the data indicates which communities were the site of repeated damage or problems in the time periods reported.
Mahwah, for example, saw 54 days in six months time as the failure point for at least one outage — with an average of 55 customers affected each of those days. Ringwood, which is had sections served by all three companies, meanwhile, saw 28 days with a service disruption tracing to a problem within the borough — with an average of 324 customers affected each of those days.
Teaneck showed 22 days with at least one outage starting somewhere in town in the six-month period. On average, 970 customers were affected each of those days.
The conclusions regulators can draw are limited now at the outset of the initiative but will increase over time.
As reports are standardized, more data roll in and histories are developed, officials will be able to compare current and future performance and look for trends. Utilities are reporting, in part, the day and time the outages occurred, the circuit involved, and the number of customers affected. The hope is that the new reporting requirements would become part of state regulation around this time next year when a relevant part of the administrative code is due for re-adoption.
Reports were also filed by Atlantic City Electric, the last of the state's quartet of power utilities, which has more than a half-million customers in eight counties in the southern portion of the state.
Information from: The Record (Woodland Park, N.J.), http://www.northjersey.com