By Jay Cook |
MIDDLETOWN – There are public policy programs for fresher air and cleaner drinking water, but a new advocacy group believes the focus should also be on larger issues in the electrical utility industry.
It’s why a small group of Monmouth County residents have teamed up to give a voice to electrical consumers who suffer when the power shuts off and the lights don’t turn back on. Their new organization, Consumers Helping Affect Regulation of Gas and Electric (CHARGE), plans to jolt public utilities into more proactivity and transparency on the local service level.
“There’s really little consumer voice in terms of public policy for the distribution system and the regulation of that,” CHARGE president Kin Gee, a Holmdel resident, told The Two River Times this week. “What we want to do is be the consumer advocate to make sure those issues are brought to light for education and to bring awareness.”
Gee, a semi-retired risk management consultant, and board secretary Judy Musa, a public relations professional, are no strangers to the electrical industry. They successfully anchored the residents group Residents Against Giant Electric during a two-year legal battle fighting Jersey Central Power & Light’s (JCP&L) Monmouth County Reliability Project, a proposed 230-kV transmission line from Aberdeen to Red Bank along the NJ Transit North Jersey Coast Line commuter rail right-of-way. The project was shot down by BPU officials in June.
That experience provided Gee and Musa with two years’ worth of background about how the electrical industry operates throughout New Jersey.
“These problems are symptoms of a bigger issue – the neglect of the whole distribution system,” Gee said. “We need to have that system fixed because it’s broken. Unless someone comes in, this will go on for years.”
The group has already been active on the state level as it works to secure nonprofit status. Gee has testified before the New Jersey Legislature on public utility business practices and reliability standards across the board in the past year.
The most common problems are caused by the distribution lines looping down streets and along highways, he said. Wooden poles along roadways are usually the culprits when stormy weather causes power outages.
“The service is the part that’s falling apart,” Musa. “And at the end of the day, we’re the ones who sit in the dark waiting for them to turn the lights on.”
Gee is also bothered by the discrepancy between what ratepayers pay to the utility companies and the level of performance that’s reciprocated. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, New Jersey typically has among the top 10 highest electricity prices in the country. But a June 2017 report from the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy found New Jersey’s two largest utilities to be in the bottom half nationwide in terms of service.
“There are rates paid and with those rates are certain expectations,” Musa added. “Those are not being met.”
Thanks to a wave of two intense winter storms earlier this year, public utilities were put in the spotlight for their business practices. Winter storms Quinn and Riley knocked out power to over 100,000 New Jersey residents during that brief span in March.
Gee testified in April on behalf of ratepayers to the economic growth committee of the state Senate during hearings on implementing stricter fines for public utilities for service failures doing major storms. Fines were bumped up from $100 per day to $25,000 per violation.
On a local level, Monmouth County residents receive electrical service from JCP&L, a subsidiary of the Ohio-based FirstEnergy organization.
And Monmouth County felt the effect of those winter storms. Monmouth County Freeholder Patrick Impreveduto sent a letter to the state Board of Public Utilities (BPU) in May asking for meetings with JCP&L to discuss “their outdated infrastructure that is negatively impacting the lives of thousands of taxpayers throughout New Jersey.”
Last month, JCP&L took a step forward in addressing “reliability and resiliency” to its distribution system when it announced a nearly $400 million plan, JCP&L Reliability Plus, to protect the local distribution systems from severe weather and the frequency of power outages.
That project includes over 4,000 enhancements to underground and aboveground lines as well as more vegetation management locally. Still in the petition phase, the utility proposed a 25-cent increase to ratepayers.
“The special focus of this program is to limit damage during severe weather events,” JCP&L president Jim Fakult said in a statement. “The new equipment, along with enhanced vegetation management, builds on our ongoing efforts to ensure customer service reliability and resiliency.”
Although CHARGE has taken no official position yet, Gee said he is still skeptical. Sure, improvements are positive, but he argued the project’s need. Existing management practices in place should already address those issues.
A Sept. 11 public meeting in Holmdel has been set to discuss the JCP&L Reliability Plus project.
This article was first published in the August 16-23, 2018 print edition of The Two River Times.
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