Why it takes so long to get power back

Why it takes so long to get power back

13 Mart 2018 - 02:00

Days after a nasty nor’easter tore through its service territory, Jersey Central Power & Light Co. was still trying to restore electricity for thousands of customers—when it got slammed again by Wednesday’s snowstorm.

On Bailey Road in Millburn, where some have been without power since last Friday’s storm, the loud noise of portable electric generators cranking away continued to punctuate the calm of the usually quiet suburban neighborhood for yet another day as the sun came up on Thursday.

Winter Weather

(Julio Cortez | AP Photo)

Widespread storm damage

JCP&L officials said there had still been 19,000 customers who had been without lights or heat since the March 2 nor’easter, when the arrival of the heavy snow on Wednesday exacerbated the situation.

Indeed, as people began digging out their driveways Thursday morning, JCP&L was trying to get power back to more than 130,000 customers—including more than 52,000 in Morris County alone.

Public Service Electric & Gas Co., which by Sunday evening had restored power to nearly all of the more than 175,000 customers affected by the first nor’easter—with the last customer not back in service until Monday night—reported more than 78,000 customers again in the dark on Thursday morning. The utility was talking days, not hours to get them all back in service.


Utility repairs continue

Utility workers in Randolph repairing damaged lines, four days after the first nor'easter. (Ed Murray | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com)

Why does it take so long to get power back after a storm?

The problems facing many New Jersey utility customers these days pale in comparison to the weeks-long outages many experienced in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, and are nothing like the disaster still playing out in Puerto Rico six months after Hurricane Maria all-but-destroyed the island's power grid.

But restoring electricity, even after a routine storm in New Jersey, takes more than clearing downed trees and restringing lines, experts say.

"First have to get out and do assessments,” said Scott Aaronson, vice president of security and preparedness for the Edison Electric Institute, the association that represents all U.S. investor-owned electric utilities. "In a wind storm, you can't even go out in a bucket truck to make those assessments."

4 Ga0717Collapse Sciarrino

(Robert Sciarrino | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com)

What's so hard about plugging in everything?

Electrical distribution systems are complicated machines, said Aaronson.

If the cord falls out of a socket, plugging your TV back in will fix the problem. Getting the power back on after a storm is a little more complicated.

"Generation has to match customer needs," said Aaronson.

Restoration from a widespread outage has to be done incrementally, balancing generation and demand. That said, the most labor-intensive effort in getting customers back after is storm is widespread downed lines, which he said takes time to fix, and may only affect a few customers once repairs are made.

From the power station where electricity is generated, to outlet where you plug in your toaster, there is an unseen highway of transmission lines, substations, and transformers, all connected together, controlled by circuit breakers, relays and transmission line isolators, until a line brings the juice down from a pole into your house.

Along the way anything from a lightning strike to a falling tree to a wayward squirrel can knock you off the grid and force you to start looking for flashlights and candles.

Getting the toaster back can be as simple as resetting a circuit breaker, and as complicated as in-the-field surgery to repair extensive storm damage.


Growing anger

But for those waiting in the dark, the delay can be frustrating. In the case of last Friday’s nor’easter, at least one JCP&L customer became so outraged at the long wait for power restoration that he threatened to blow up a substation and kidnap an employee of the utility, according to police.

One PSE&G customer complained on Twitter: "It's unacceptable that a power outage can’t be fixed until SATURDAY at 11:45. People have children. I honestly feel like looking elsewhere now. So disappointed in your lack of service and even ability to get a hold of someone at your office for an update."



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