MINEOLA, N.Y. – Electric utilities that spent billions of dollars hardening infrastructure after Superstorm Sandy hit New York and New Jersey in 2012 say those upgrades helped keep the lights on during last weekend's blizzard.
The wind whipped and the snow piled up by the foot, but compared to many previous storms, power outages were mild.
Consolidated Edison, which serves 3 million customers in New York City and its northern suburbs, reported that only 4,500 customers lost power. On Long Island, where Atlantic storms have a history of playing havoc with overhead power lines, utility PSEG reported that fewer than 30,000 of its 1.1 million customers had an outage.
Jersey Power and Light saw 130,000 of its 1.1 million customers lose service, but spokesman Ron Morano said more than three quarters of those people had service restored within 24 hours. Another New Jersey utility, Public Service Electric & Gas, had only 5,700 total outages, with service restored to most in about one hour.
Utilities and some experts said things could have been a lot worse if the companies that oversee the power grid hadn't learned such hard lessons during Sandy, when 4 million customers in the two states lost service.
"Certainly all the improvements utilities made post-Sandy; the hardening of infrastructure, the tree-trimming, replacement of wires and switches all were really necessary and contributed to keep the outages down," said Meghan McPherson, an emergency management expert who teaches at Adelphi University on Long Island.
Besides installing wider, heavier power poles and more resilient wiring and raising the height of substations vulnerable to flooding, Con Edison spokesman Phillip O'Brien said the company has installed "smart switches" in many areas. The switches are designed to limit the number of customers who lose service when an individual wire or a pole goes down.
"Because of the smart switch, we had maybe 50 or 70 customers losing power, not 300 or more like we might have had before," O'Brien said. The company is in the midst of completing a four-year, $1 billion infrastructure undertaken after Sandy, O'Brien said.
PSEG Long Island, which took over electric grid operations following scathing criticism of the Long Island Power Authority's performance in Sandy, is in the midst of a nearly $730 million infrastructure upgrade using part of a $1.4 billion federal hazard mitigation grant.
Substations that were flooded in Sandy have been raised higher, stronger poles and wiring were installed in many places. The utility also installed smart switch technology like Con Edison, said John O'Connell, the company's vice president of transmission and distribution.
PSEG Long Island has also expanded its tree-trimming efforts to 2,000 miles of wiring annually, up from about 1,800 miles in 2013. Also, trees are being pruned more aggressively with contractors being asked to keep tree branches about 8 feet from wiring on the sides of trees, rather than the previous 6-foot radius.
"It makes a huge difference in a storm just to have some additional clearance around the wires," O'Connell said.
Jersey Central Power & Light has spent more than $2.5 billion in the past decade enhancing its electric system, said Morano. That resulted in an 18 percent reduction in outages in 2015, with the average outage time running a little over an hour. Morano said the utility trims nearly 3,300 miles of power lines annually.
Also in New Jersey, PSE&G — like PSEG Long Island a subsidiary of the Public Service Enterprise Group — says it is in the midst of an $11 billion, 5-year capital investment program to upgrade transmission lines. "We are, in effect, rewiring New Jersey," said spokeswoman Karen Johnson.
Almost 24 million people throughout the Northeast saw more than 20 inches of snow and 1.5 million got more than 30 inches, according to the National Weather Service.
The region also was helped somewhat by a few meteorological factors going its way, said McPherson. "I guess you could say we had good snow. It was not wet, it was very fluffy and the wires were not covered in snow and falling to the ground. And we got moderating temperatures immediately after the storm," she said.
"Some luck is always involved and we were lucky this time around."