Calming the storm after the hurricane
New utilities group chief's legislative skill tested early
Andrew Hendry is taking the helm of the state's trade group for investor-owned utilities at a time when New Jersey residents are acutely aware of the utilities' importance.
Hendry, the former executive director of the Senate Majority Office, in Trenton, took over as president and CEO of the New Jersey Utilities Authority on Nov. 12, just two weeks after Hurricane Sandy left millions of residents without basic utility services for days.
That made for a busy first week.
"It's a combination of getting up to speed on the administrative aspects of running a small business here, which is what NJUA is," Hendry said, "while at the same time trying to get a handle on where the Legislature and governor's office is going in response to the storm and hearings, and how we can be a resource to them."
It's a comfortable — if busy — place for Hendry to be. Before joining the Senate Democrats, he worked in various government offices, including the Assembly Majority, the Office of Legislative Services and the Department of Education. He also spent time as director of legislative and regulatory affairs for the cable giant Comcast Corp.
Hendry, who succeeds Karen Alexander, said he's eager to dig into the thorny policy issues faced by the heavily regulated utilities sector.
"They're complex, which I like," he said. "I come out of a policy analyst background, so they're good issues for a policy geek like me to sink my teeth into."
Lou Walters, chair of the NJUA and president and general manager of Atlantic City Sewerage Co., said Hendry is filling the big shoes left by Alexander. He said the association was keen on a candidate with legislative experience, which he said was more important than industry knowledge.
"It's knowing how to make contact," Walters said. "The industry you can learn, and Andrew is a quick study and won't have a problem with understanding that."
Hendry's legislative experience will come in handy right away. Frank Felder, director of the Center for Energy, Economic and Environmental Policy at Rutgers University, said it's likely utilities companies will face a push for new laws and regulations in the coming months as lawmakers react to constituent concerns about Sandy outages.
"I think there will be a range of stuff about backup power for gas stations, hardening the electric power system, and how to rebuild the places in New Jersey that were just devastated, like the barrier islands," he said.
But Felder said the likely regulatory re-evaluation doesn't have to be a bad thing for utilities. It could be helpful, he said, "if there's additional clarity on what they're responsible for; if there are regulations that serve their customers, but allow the utilities the ability to make investments they need and have opportunities to recover those investments."
So far, Hendry said he's been pleased to see bipartisan cooperation at the Statehouse in the aftermath of Sandy, and he's confident lawmakers will look at the big picture when assessing Sandy.
"We're definitely heartened by the way the Legislature and governor are sort of dealing with this," he said.
Walters said he thinks reactionary regulation will be limited by the fact that legislators already dove into these issues last year, after Hurricane Irene and the October snowstorm.
Following major outages associated with those storms, the Board of Public Utilities commissioned a report, by Emergency Preparedness Partnerships, outlining more than 100 recommendations for utilities to prepare for and respond to future storms.
"By and large the New Jersey water, electric, and gas utilities responded very well to this storm (Sandy)," Walters said. "We're well prepared and we're rebuilding."
Walters said one of Hendry's key jobs at the NJUA will be serving as a voice for the industry, to ensure that improvements made by utilities are communicated both to lawmakers and to the public.
Hendry said he hopes to build on Alexander's leadership and enhance the association's voice in Trenton. He also anticipates spending much of his time discussing infrastructure improvements, and the associated costs.
"There's certainly a call in Trenton for looking at ways to improve — hardening the infrastructure and also being more resilient; when power goes out getting it back on more quickly," he said. "There's a cost associated with that, and part of what this conversation's got to be about is finding a way to pay for it."
That could take a while to sort out; for now, Hendry's message is that utilities aren't opposed to improvements, but are ready to embrace them.
"We're not going to try to defend the status quo," he said. "We're trying to improve and get better in the future."
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