NPR

After Sandy Outages, A Tale Of Two Utilities

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

[Our crews] work on our four square miles on the sunny days ... So when the storms come, they know our territory inside and out.
Robert Conley, the mayor of Madison, N.J.

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.

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Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel. After Hurricane Sandy, some of the East Coast's largest utility companies struggled for weeks to restore power to millions of homes and businesses, but there were a few success stories. Several cities with their own utilities were able to restore power in a matter of days. NPR's Joel Rose reports.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: This is the story about two New Jersey towns. Madison is a leafy comfortable suburb about 25 miles west of Manhattan. Summit is a leafy comfortable suburb about 20 miles from Manhattan. Both of them had lots of downed trees and both lost power when Sandy hit. But what happened to these towns next was very, very different.

MAYOR ELLEN DICKSON: We really didn't see much progress in Summit at all until day 3, 4 and then slowly things started to come back. So we had a long, rough slog with this storm.

ROSE: Ellen Dickson is the mayor of Summit. She said it was 12 days before Jersey Central Power and Light had everyone in town back online. In the company's defense, Dickson says Jersey Central had to restore power to 90 percent of its customers.

DICKSON: When you're in a numbers game, who can get them up fastest, you go for the easiest: the low-hanging fruit that bringing up a lot of people at once and then the suburbs tend to get the end of the line on the service.

ROSE: But that is not how the recover played out a few miles away in Madison.

ROBERT LANDRIGEN: We were able to power up sections of town within two days and then by the weekend, most of the town was back.

ROSE: Robert Landrigen is a city councilman from Madison. The town operates its own utility company, meaning it's responsible for the lines that deliver electricity to homes and businesses, along with trucks and repair crews. Mayor Robert Conley says Madison's operation is tiny, but he says it does have some advantages over crews from the big utilities who may have never worked in the area before.

MAYOR ROBERT CONLEY: They work on our four square miles on the sunny days. 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.

ROSE: 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 directs the Public Power Association of New Jersey. He says his members have a built-in incentive to be responsive to their customers.

JAMES JABLONSKI: 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. Chances are they know the mayor, you know, and they'll call, or a council member, and say, hey, what's going on here?

ROSE: Officials in nearby Summit, New Jersey got calls too from constituents who had to drive five miles over 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 on after two major storms. Summit administrator Chris Cotter says his town is thinking about starting its own utility.

CHRIS COTTER: There may be very much renewed interest in that because the idea of being able to locally direct restoration efforts is one that certainly is appealing.

ROSE: But Cotter knows it would not be easy. Even James Jablonski of the Public Power Association of New Jersey says there are good reasons why no city in the state has taken over electrical distribution in more than a generation.

JABLONSKI: You're talking about buying out all their poles, wires, meters, transformers, maybe substations, the whole distribution system. And the cost can be daunting.

ROSE: And even if the town could raise the money, there's no guarantee the incumbent utility would sell without a fight. Jersey Central Power and Light, which is owned by First Energy, declined to comment for this story. Summit Mayor Ellen Dickson says 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.

DICKSON: The electric grid in our town looks very old and tired. The transformers look old and tired. The poles are not in great shape. There's a lot that could be done there.

ROSE: Dickson says you don't have to run your own utility company to see that. Joel Rose, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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