Jersey Central Power and Light (JCP&L) regional representative Jackie Espinoza and Vice President of External Affairs John Anderson visited with the Byram Township Council and residents on Tuesday evening, Feb. 4 to discuss the utility’s progress on their Reliability Plus program, a four-year, $400 million dollar initiative to decrease outage frequency and duration, upgrade infrastructure, and increase resiliency and reliability.
The plan, which was filed with the Board of Public Utilities (BPU) in Jul 2018, was approved and began being put into effect about seven months ago. The primary focus in Byram, and many other Sussex County municipalities, according to Espinoza, is to decrease the amount of vegetation that could damage power lines and to install a number of ‘trip saver’ devices, which are automated circuit reclosers that could reduce outage times from hours to minutes. Byram’s substations will also be evaluated for potential upgrades.
Anderson, who has been with JCP&L for over 25 years, said his background is in forestry, and his main concern is the enhanced vegetation removal which is part of the Reliability Plus program. Previously, the utility would trim trees and other vegetation on a four-year cycle but has ramped up the removal of potential hazards.
“Up to 80 percent of our outages are tree-related, and the increasing frequency of storms makes it hard to keep up," Anderson said. "With this year’s and the past year’s storms alone, we’ve been able to document where the damage is concentrated, and a lot of damage has been done in Sussex County.”
Anderson said they’ve seen about a 52 percent success rate in knocking on doors and explaining to homeowners what work they would like to do and why.
“We tell people that we’re seeing dead, dying, or diseased trees, and we’d like to take them down,” Anderson said. “And we are taking down ash trees based on the prevalence of the emerald ash borer.”
Anderson emphasized that the utility company is not removing trees for the sake of removal and that the company is pruning responsibly and with species-specific techniques. Anderson said he’s cognizant that people live in rural towns like Byram for the privacy and beauty, and the utility’s intent is not to destroy that.
“We’ve just got to keep up the conversation about where the line is between property owners’ rights and public safety,” Anderson said. “This is not a panacea, because this is a heavily wooded area, but this is a way we can handle issues before they become outages.”
When questioned about the infrastructure and potential upgrades, Espinoza said that Byram power lines will be receiving five of the trip saver devices this year, and then monitoring will occur to see if the town requires more. Anderson added that those studies take into account the population density, number of customers per circuit, and the amount of power used by residents.
Mayor Alex Rubenstein was curious about the way crews are dispatched when major outages occur and said some residents have expressed concern to him and other town officials that there sometimes seems to be utility workers on site, but ‘doing nothing’.
Rubenstein asked, “Is there a way to have JCP&L work more closely with the local officials, to determine how to solve our outages in a more intuitive manner?”
Anderson said that he can understand the frustration of people without power seeing a worker seemingly sitting still, but said there is a very specific protocol followed when a storm hits. Explaining that since the damage caused by Hurricanes Irene and Sandy, everyone at the power company has a ‘storm assignment’, and they follow what’s known as their Incident Command System (ICS).
“When we have a storm, the ICS dictates that everyone switches from their regular tasks to their storm assignment. Here, the chain of command begins with the county OEM and Sheriff Strada’s office. Each municipal OEM needs to filter their concerns up to the county level. We have to follow the process.”
In regard to workers who are seen ‘doing nothing’, Anderson explained that sometimes, that’s exactly their job.
“When you see a truck sitting by a broken pole or downed wire, they are serving as a public protector,” Anderson said. “Their job is to sit there and guard that hazard until it can be assessed and fixed, or they are relieved by another protection crew. No one wants to restore your power more than we do, but safety concerns have to dictate the order of operations.”
Both Anderson and Espinoza explained that the Reliability Plus program is focused on increasing the resiliency of the distribution grid and that only months into the program, they are starting to see results.
“We’re just concerned that people can’t see what we’re doing in terms of efficiency and safety,” Anderson said. "But we want you all to know that we are passionate about what we do and passionate about delivering reliable electricity to our customers.”
In April 2019, the BPU saw fit to allow an additional $97 million in funding for the Reliability Plus program, and all told, the initiative costs JCP&L customers approximately fifty cents a month on their bills. For more information on the program, visit www.firstenergycorp.com/newsroom.