Filed Under:

After Sandy Outages, A Tale Of Two Utilities

Play associated audio

While thousands of people on the East Coast waited weeks for big utility companies to turn the lights back on after Superstorm Sandy slammed ashore, the residents of Madison, N.J., had power just days after the storm. This leafy New York City suburb operates its own municipal utility — and now some neighboring towns are asking whether they should, too.

"We were able to power up sections of town within two days," said Madison Councilman Robert Landrigan. "And then, by the weekend [after the storm], most of the town was back."

That was not the case a few miles away in Summit, N.J., where it took Jersey Central Power and Light 12 days to restore power to everyone. "We had a long, rough slog with this storm," says Summit Mayor Ellen Dickson.

In the company's defense, Dickson says Jersey Central had to restore power to 90 percent of its customers. "When you're in a numbers game — [for] who can get them up fastest — you go for the easiest: the low-hanging fruit ... bringing up a lot of people at once," Dickson says. "So honestly, when it comes down to a leafy suburb with lots of trees, where it's very difficult to get the wires back up, we are probably much lower on the chain."

Crews That Know The Neighborhood

But the storm's aftermath played out very differently in Madison. Both towns had lots of downed trees, and both lost power. But unlike Summit, Madison is responsible for the lines that deliver electricity to homes and businesses, along with trucks and repair crews.

Madison Mayor Robert Conley says the operation is tiny, but it does have some advantages over crews from bigger utilities who may never have worked in the area before. "[Our crews] work on our four square miles on the sunny days," Conley says. "So when the storms come, they know our territory inside and out. They know where the trouble spots are. They know exactly where to go to."

Madison has had a long time to get this right. The town started its own utility in the 1880s. Today, it's one of just nine municipally owned utilities in the state. James Jablonski, executive director of the Public Power Association of New Jersey, says his members have a built-in incentive to be responsive to their customers.

"If they don't get the service back quickly, they don't need to worry about trying to call an 800 number or whomever else," said Jablonski. "Chances are they know the mayor and they'll call, or a council member, and say, 'Hey, what's going on here?' "

Officials in nearby Summit got calls too — from constituents who had to drive five miles to Madison to go to the movies or charge their cellphones. Frustration with Jersey Central Power and Light has been growing since last year, when the company also had a tough time getting the lights back on after two major storms.

Local Is 'Appealing' — But Costly

Now Summit is thinking about starting its own utility.

"There may be very much renewed interest in that," says City Administrator Chris Cotter. "Because the idea of being able to locally direct restoration efforts is one that certainly is appealing."

But Cotter knows it would not be easy. No city in the state has taken over electrical distribution in more than a generation, in part because of the high cost of buying the existing light poles, transformers and other equipment from the incumbent utility.

Dickson, Summit's mayor, admits getting into the electrical distribution business would be a drastic step. But she thinks Jersey Central could learn a few things from city-owned utilities — like having a dedicated repair crew that knows the local terrain, and investing in up-to-date equipment.

"The electric grid in our town looks very old and tired," Dickson says. "The transformers look old and tired. The poles are not in great shape. There's a lot that could be done there." You don't have to run your own utility company, Dickson says, to see that.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

WAMU 88.5

Your Turn: Sexual Assault, Nate Parker And More

Director Nate Parker's college rape case is resurfacing and putting off would-be fans of his highly anticipated film "The Birth of a Nation." What do Washingtonians think?

NPR

Minnesota Cracks Down On Neonic Pesticides, Promising Aid To Bees

Minnesota's governor has ordered new restrictions on the use of neonicotinoid pesticides, which have been blamed for killing bees. Many details of the plan, however, remain to be worked out.
WAMU 88.5

Donald Trump’s Immigration Plan And His Visit To Mexico

Donald Trump lays out a plan for immigration after a meeting with Mexico President Enrique Peña Nieto. An update on the Republican presidential nominee’s proposals on immigration, illegal drugs and trade.

WAMU 88.5

Results From Congressional Primary Races And New Concerns About Hacks Into State Voting Systems

Join us to discuss results from primary challenges to Republican Senator John McCain, Democratic Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz and others and new concerns possible Russian hackers breaking into U.S. state voting systems.

Leave a Comment

Help keep the conversation civil. Please refer to our Terms of Use and Code of Conduct before posting your comments.