Climate change

Shoring Up the Grid for Extreme Weather and Climate Change

The threat of climate change is no longer a threat—it’s here and it’s impacting everyone. However, in New Jersey, 10 years after Superstorm Sandy, communities are better prepared than ever to handle future weather-related events.

Whether it’s California wildfires, scorching heat in Western Europe, or thousand-year floods in Yellowstone National Park, we are all adjusting to the effects of climate change. In New Jersey, we got an early glimpse of what extreme weather could do a decade ago, when Superstorm Sandy raged across the East Coast, killing more than 125 people and causing more than $60 billion in damage.

At Public Service Electric and Gas (PSE&G), the largest and oldest utility in New Jersey, Sandy was an inflection point. Our 6,400 employees, along with 4,500 mutual aid workers from 24 states and the Province of Quebec, worked round-the-clock for weeks to restore power to two million (90%) of PSE&G customers—many leaving their own struggling families and flooded homes to serve customers.

1. From utility poles to computer systems and communications networks, PSE&G has added advanced technology that helps detect power outages, troubleshoot the cause, and restore power faster. Courtesy: PSE&G

Damage from Sandy was unprecedented. Storm surges of more than 12 feet flooded over 14 electric switching stations and interrupted one-third of our transmission lines. More than 48,000 trees had to be trimmed or removed and 2,500 of our poles were repaired or replaced (Figure 1).

The real toll, of course, was human. In addition to the 38 lives lost in New Jersey, 346,000 homes across the state were damaged. Power outages affected critical infrastructure like water and sewage systems. Teams of PSE&G employees set up mobile service centers in the hardest hit communities, distributing more than 90,000 bags of ice, 60,000 cases of water, and 45,000 ready-made meals.

In the aftermath of Sandy, PSE&G went to work, developing a plan to better protect our customers from future extreme weather events. The plan eventually became known as Energy Strong and the Gas System Modernization Program (GSMP)—a multi-year, multi-phase $4.8 billion initiative to strengthen and modernize electric and gas infrastructure that continues today.

Meeting the Challenge

We realized that New Jersey’s energy infrastructure needed extensive upgrades (Figure 2) to withstand the effects of climate change, which has made severe storms more frequent and ferocious. This year, Colorado State University meteorologists predicted there would be 20 named storms, including four major hurricanes. Last year, there were 21 named storms, making it the sixth consecutive year of above-average storm activity.

2. PSE&G re-engineered substations to make them more responsive and resilient. The company is one of the nation’s largest investors in modern switchgear. Courtesy: PSE&G

PSE&G worked with multiple local, state, and federal agencies to get support for the historic investment, and deployed legions of civil and electrical engineers and construction workers. It was not an easy task. To succeed, we had to overcome three critical challenges:

    ■ Educate customers, stakeholders, and the public about the realities of more extreme weather caused by climate change. This included detailing how existing systems were vulnerable to the frequency and intensity of storms. For example, Sandy and Irene had caused extensive flooding in non-traditional flood zones. Since 2010, PSE&G has experienced the five most disruptive storms in its more than 100 years of operating history.
    ■ Raise awareness of the need to update aging infrastructure. At a time when customers’ dependence on electricity is increasing while their tolerance for service interruptions is decreasing, the transmission and distribution systems date back generations, making them increasingly vulnerable to extreme weather.
    ■ Demonstrate that PSE&G could modernize its networks to enhance resiliency and reliability without severely impacting rates. PSE&G executed these major projects as efficiently and cost-effectively as possible, and gas bills remain the lowest in the region, while electric bills are lower than average. By finishing these improvements on time, on budget, and on scope, PSE&G is providing our customers a more reliable utility service at a lower overall cost, relative to our peers.

The Pay Off

Before this investment, the loss of utility services impacted an array of essential services during Sandy and Irene. Emergency services, including police, fire, and government buildings, were crippled. Critical social service programs were interrupted to support hospitals, nursing homes, care facilities, domestic violence shelters, foster homes, and mental health facilities.

PSE&G’s proactive action and significant infrastructure investments have spared customers from the devastating power losses they experienced during Superstorm Sandy. For first responders, sustained power loss can be the difference between life and death. Critical facilities like hospitals, nursing homes, and police and fire stations now experience power restoration faster than those customers not served by the Energy Strong initiative.

3. PSE&G crews are in local neighborhoods every day, no matter the weather, to safely provide customers with high-quality service. Courtesy: PSE&G

Since the infrastructure improvements (Figure 3), power interruptions have also been less frequent. For example, during Subtropical Storm Alberto in May 2018, floodwaters covered the site of the Ewing Township substation, but didn’t reach new raised equipment. Thanks to the Energy Strong work, no customer served by this substation lost power.

Another example of how PSE&G’s historic infrastructure investment is paying off occurred in September 2021, when Hurricane Ida brought historic flooding across PSE&G’s territory. Ultimately, Ida claimed 30 lives and caused a rare Category 3 tornado, but only 125,000 PSE&G customers lost power, compared to the 2.1 million who suffered outages during Sandy. None of the improved stations that had flooded during Sandy or Hurricane Irene suffered service interruptions during Ida.

PSE&G’s Somerville substation, for example, remained in service despite floodwaters reaching 56 inches; the New Milford substation remained in service amid 30-inch-high water. Both stations were flooded during earlier storms, leading to widespread outages.

During Ida, newly replaced gas mains experienced no water infiltration issues, and the safer, more durable plastic equipment helped maintain increased pressure in the system. Public officials have recognized PSE&G’s performance in storms that occurred since Sandy, noting that PSE&G had fewer customers impacted by outages and restored power more quickly than other utilities in the state.

“During Superstorm Sandy, I was one of the South Hoboken commanders for the Hoboken Police Department. The western half of the city was under at least six feet of water, which included the PSE&G Marshall Street Substation, and our entire city was without power for a week, creating dangerous situations for every resident and every first responder,” said Kenneth Ferrante, director of public safety for the City of Hoboken.

“Over the past ten years, as the Office of Emergency Management coordinator, police chief, and now public safety director for Hoboken, I have witnessed PSE&G’s critical commitment to improving infrastructure,” Ferrante said. “From working with the city to relocate and elevate our main substation out of the flood zone to integrating upgraded cables and stronger poles, PSE&G has been an invaluable partner in making our community safer and more resilient. PSE&G’s commitment to working with our city government brought Hoboken to a place where there was not one power outage during either Ida or Hurricane Henri. When major storms bring little negative impact, residents stay safe and get back to their normal routines much sooner.”

4. PSE&G works year-round to maintain its electric delivery system, which includes 300 substations and more than 14,200 miles of power lines. Courtesy: PSE&G

The 10-year effort to strengthen and modernize New Jersey’s electric infrastructure (Figure 4) by PSE&G was recently recognized by the Edison Electric Institute with the 2022 Edison Award, the industry’s highest honor.

Looking Ahead

Hardening New Jersey’s electric and natural gas networks against extreme weather events remains a work in progress. From 2021 to 2025, PSE&G plans to invest $14–16 billion, some of which is intended to modernize and strengthen infrastructure, including future phases of Energy Strong and GSMP, along with a new initiative recently approved by New Jersey regulators, the Infrastructure Advancement Program (IAP).

The four-year $511 million IAP will improve reliability and resiliency at the neighborhood level. It also includes funding to support the rapid transition to electric vehicles and technologies that enable more renewable energy to reach the grid. The investment will create hundreds of well-paying jobs and help stimulate the New Jersey economy. Specific work includes:

    ■ Modernizing electric circuits.
    ■ Upgrading five aging electric substations and four aging natural gas metering and regulating stations.
    ■ More than $200 million of last-mile improvements to provide residential areas with greater reliability.

Addressing Climate Change

PSE&G is also implementing multiple clean energy programs to reduce energy consumption and the greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change. The company is among the top 10 carbon-free energy producers in the U.S.

Since 2005, the company has reduced carbon emissions from power generation 98% by maintaining the company’s nuclear units, investing in renewables, and exiting or retiring nearly 11 GW of fossil generation. PSEG has set a goal of being net zero by 2030, well ahead of the state of New Jersey’s goal of 100% clean energy by 2050.

Continuing these investments is fundamental to our Powering Progress vision of a future where people use less energy, and it’s cleaner, safer, and delivered more reliably than ever.

Kim Hanemann is president and COO of Public Service Electric & Gas Co.

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