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Title: After '99 Outages, GPU Put on Notice
Published in the Asbury Park Press 4/27/00 By DAVID P. WILLIS BUSINESS WRITER
NEWARK -- State regulators yesterday put GPU Energy on what one official called "probation," ordering the electric utility to inspect every substation transformer and justify that it has enough employees to maintain its equipment.
While saying it doesn't believe GPU Energy is providing unsafe, inadequate or improper service to customers, the Board of Public Utilities said its investigation following the power outages last July yielded some concerns.
Record-setting heat from July 2 to 8, unprecedented electrical demand and a failure of two transformers at a Red Bank substation caused power outages and forced the company to impose "rolling blackouts."
Engineers said porcelain insulators that surrounded 230,000-volt cables feeding the transformers broke, causing the transformers to fail. The number of outages in the Monmouth County area served by the Red Bank facility peaked on July 6, hitting 105,000 customers.
State regulators examined the state's three other utilities' outage problems, including Conectiv Power Delivery, which covers southern Ocean County.
The report was critical of GPU's decision to twice put off replacing the transformers, originally scheduled for 1998. Budgetary and manpower constraints factored into a decision to postpone the job, the board said. While the transformers arrived in Red Bank in spring 1998, work was put off until 2000.
The decision, said Jim Giuliano, director of the BPU's division of service evaluation, was "questionable and risky."
The company's July 1998 Capital Project Review Team's decision to defer work until 2000 was not supported by a planning study and was opposed by a company engineer, the report said.
Its investigation also found that the insulators, called bushings, failed as a result of long-term degradation, exacerbated in part by temperatures that hit 100. The study also found that GPU failed to test the bushings between 1971 and 1990, but could not establish a link between the lack of inspection and the equipment failure.
"I consider the Red Bank situation very, very serious and inexcusable," said Commissioner Carmen J. Armenti, adding the company should be "put on probation" until the board's orders are completed.
"I doubt they would be working for me anymore if they made those decisions," he said.
The criticism, echoed by other commissioners, was not lost on Michael B. Roche, GPU Energy's senior vice president of New Jersey operations, who was named to the new post in November. He acknowledged GPU needs to "regain the trust" of customers and regulators.
The board said GPU Energy must: Inspect approximately 37 substation transformers by June 1, and the remaining 578 transformers by the end of the year. GPU Energy's Roche said the company has already inspected about 90 transformers, flagging 14 for further tests or replacement. Re-examine all proposed substation capital projects not completed by July 1 that were deferred as a result of the July 1998 review process.
Revamp the decision-making process used by technical and management review teams. Study and document the resource requirements needed to ensure that maintenance plans and programs are adequately funded. Conduct a study to make sure its work force is large enough to conduct required inspections and maintenance, install new service in a timely manner, and quickly restore power following an outage.
The study raised concerns over the company's staffing levels, which have decreased over the past five years while customer load has grown. Line and trouble department employees work a lot of overtime, the report said. The company cannot further reduce the number of employees until the study is completed and the board approves.
GPU's activities and reports will be independently verified by BPU staff, who will interview line workers, union leaders and executives, board President Herbert Tate said. A commissioner also has the power to hold a hearing to make sure the board's orders are followed, he added.
Roche said GPU has increased its expenditures for capital projects in New Jersey by $56 million over three years, including $22 million this year. The company is working at a "very intense pace" to get projects completed before summer, he added.
Roche said the company is set to implement a new 24-hour schedule for its front line trouble workers, a move that will reduce overtime and improve power restoration.
Red Bank Mayor Edward J. McKenna lauded the board's decision. "The most important issue is accountability," he said. "It was important for the BPU to charge GPU with being accountable for all their deficiencies."
As for last July's outages in Conectiv Power Delivery territory in South Jersey, including one affecting Long Beach Island, the BPU blamed low voltage, not equipment failures.
The board ordered the company to expand its monitoring equipment to critical areas, and study whether there is a need to reinforce the power delivery system serving the barrier island.
Conectiv also must review and prioritize transmission and distribution capital projects and prepare a report that explains the reasons for the decrease in transmission operations and maintenance expenditures.
Conectiv spokeswoman Betty Kenn-dy said the company has already completed a 12,000-volt feeder line to Long Beach Island and upgraded pow-er lines there. The company also earmarked about $25 million for South Jersey electrical system improvements.
The utility also was instructed to re-frain from reducing its work force until a study of labor and reliability requirements of its system is completed.
-- (Dee360Degree@aol.com), April 27, 2000
Why is it that so many power company transformers are blowing up lately? This seemed to be no particular problem the first three months of the year.
-- Uncle Fred (email@example.com), April 27, 2000.