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 City 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 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.
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 cell phones. 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.
Summit Mayor Ellen Dickson 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.