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Hoping cooler heads prevail in criticism of utilities

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The mob of people looking to hang the executives of power companies from their own utility poles has to be disappointed at the fact that the state can't get them in fast enough to do the rebuilding it needs to accomplish.

After the major utilities' frigorific performance in the days and weeks after Sandy barreled over utility poles and weaved trees through power lines, it was hard to find anyone with nice things to say about JCP&L or PSE&G, especially when the snow blew in and the sounds of snoring in the night were replaced by the chattering of teeth. Some of the criticism, though, is beginning to border on the ridiculous.

The suggestion, for instance, that utilities rebuild their infrastructure underground has picked up steam over the last week. Underground systems, say critics, won't be affected by downed trees and high winds, while the companies insist no system is fully weatherproof and the costs — which could be as high as $2.1 million per mile, according to an industry estimate — are prohibitive. When things go wrong, repairing underground infrastructure also is more complicated than overheads wires — just have a look at the PATH system.

There's no way power companies should be making that kind of investment — and no way customers will agree to pay for it, even when the next major storm kills the lights for a few days. The severity of this storm was unprecedented, and while there's no excuse for the fact that some homes are still dark, the utilities took appropriate steps in getting manpower in line to be ready to correct problems. We hope, like other companies looking at how the rebuilding will proceed, the utilities carefully examine areas that are consistently slammed by tropical storms and make underground or other hardening investments where it makes the most sense. That's probably the most sensible compromise, and one that should be palatable to power customers — at least, when they get their electricity back.

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