The finger pointing at Pepco begins -- Gazette.Net


This story was updated at 9:45 a.m. July 3.

Trees might have fallen in every direction during Friday’s storm, but on Monday most fingers pointed directly at Pepco as Montgomery County residents still waited for the utility to fully restore power.

Winds nearing hurricane-force tore through the region Friday night with a severe thunderstorm, leading to widespread power outages in Maryland, D.C. and Virginia.

As of 9:45 a.m. July 3, Pepco was reporting 77,050 homes in Montgomery without power and 25,202 homes without power in Prince George’s.

“People are pissed,” Councilman Marc B. Elrich (D-At large) of Takoma Park said, who was without power at his home. “People don't understand why it is taking this long.”

“We are paying the price of Pepco’s neglect of its system over many, many years,” said Council President Roger Berliner (D-Dist. 1) of Bethesda, who also was without power. “We have a weak utility system and if you have a weak utility system that meets a bad storm, it is not going to be a good combination.”

County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) said predictions that it could take until Friday to restore power to 90 percent of Pepco’s customers in the dark were unacceptable.

But all county officials could do was push the utility to speed up its efforts.

“Rarely have I felt so powerless myself as in this situation, because all you can do is hear [resident’s] anguish, share it, share in their frustration,” Berliner said. “Our county has no direct authority over Pepco, so that is why we really need the regulators to do their job.”

Maryland's Public Service Commission said it is monitoring the utilities’ effort to restore power.

PSC Chairman Douglas R.M. Nazarian said the commission will take a hard look at the utilities’ response after power is restored.

If 10 percent of a utility’s territory or 100,000 utility customers, whichever is less, lose power in an event, the company has 21 days after power is restored to file a major storm report with the PSC, he said.

After those are received, the commission will hold a hearing where it will ask “tough and penetrating” questions of the company to understand what happened and why, he said.

The PSC is already slated to decide by July 13 whether to grant Pepco a 4 percent rate increase the utility is seeking in Maryland. That increase would add about $5.56 per month to the average residential customer’s bill.

Because the case is ongoing, Nazarian would not say what is in or out of the official record on which the commission will decide the case, specifically if this latest storm will be a consideration.

To Leggett, it should be a consideration.

The PSC shouldn't ignore “the facts on the ground,” he said.

“It would be a disgrace if they got a rate increase,” said David Duberman of Chevy Chase.

Duberman said Monday that his home has electric service but that it often loses power even when a storm does not appear to be the cause, and he said the minor improvements Pepco has reported in reliability between 2010 and 2011 are “absurd.”

“There’s only one explanation — that their infrastructure is obsolete and needs a complete overhaul,” Duberman said.

Pepco has said that customers who are served by power lines that have been upgraded, as part of its five-year reliability improvement plan which began in the second half of 2010, got power restored 56 percent faster and lost power 39 percent less often.

Reports filed with the PSC show most customers are yet to see much benefit.

The company might be doing a better job, but Leggett said that is because, “in many ways they could only have done a better job.”

In 2010, the average customer outage lasted two hours on “blue sky days” without major incidents and improved modestly to 1.8 hours in 2011. An index used to track how often customers lose power, the System Average Interruption Frequency Index (SAIFI), showed that Pepco's Maryland customers lost power an average of 2.21 times in 2010 and 1.99 times in 2011.

Wind speeds recorded by the National Weather Service on Friday reached 70 mph in Montgomery near Damascus and 76 mph in Prince George's County near Seat Pleasant.

On Friday night before the storm struck, NWS issued 15 severe storm warnings cautioning that winds could hit 80 mph, NWS meteorologist Calvin Meadows said.

The last time a similar wind storm hit the Washington-Baltimore area was June 2008 when winds gusted to 70 mph at Reagan National Airport, Meadows said.

“They are not common but they do occur on average every few years,” Meadows said.

Eighteen Pepco substations across the region were damaged in the wind storm and lost all or part of their function, said Marcus Beal, a senior project manager on Pepco's business transformation team.

First Pepco got those substations on line and focused on restoring power to critical facilities such as emergency centers, hospitals and nursing homes.

Now the utility is working to remove downed trees from power lines and repair secondary lines to get power back on in neighborhoods, Beal said.

The utility had recently become more aggressive in trimming trees that could fall onto power lines as it worked to improve its reliability, a move met with intense criticism from Montgomery residents who view the trimming as retaliatory for complaints about the utility’s poor performance. Berliner drafted a bill to more tightly regulate trimming efforts by a utility in the wake of the ramped up efforts by Pepco. His bill now is undergoing amendment.

Duberman said he does not buy Pepco's claim that the major obstacle between them and improving reliability is that “they have all these obdurate homeowners who won't let them trim trees — that’s a generalization they didn’t have to prove.”

Duberman said the PSC has been asleep on the reliability issue until less than two years ago.

“Either they didn’t read the [reliability] reports or they didn’t care,” Duberman said.

Both Berliner and Elrich said Pepco’s Regional President Thomas H. Graham said in a conference call after the storm that tree trimming is not a factor in a storm like this.

Yet residents in Bethesda and Silver Spring, whose trees were recently trimmed or removed as part of Pepco’s reliability effort, still lost power with the storm, Elrich said.

But Arlene Bruhn of Conservation Montgomery said residents who do not properly take care of their trees, including having them occasionally reviewed by professional, certified arborists, contribute to whether a tree can fall in a storm.

As to why a higher percentage of Montgomery County's Pepco customers lost electric service than Pepco customers in Prince George’s County and Washington, Beal blamed it on the track of the storm.

“I don't know that anyone predicted it [the straight line wind storm] would be this damaging, including the weather specialists,” Beal said.

Residents in the county’s rural areas were not terribly shocked to lose power during the storm, said Caroline Taylor of the Montgomery Countryside Alliance.

“We are not freaking out because we don’t have power,” she said. “We make adjustments. We are used to having to be self-sufficient.”

However, a long stretch without power presents greater challenge for those in the rural upcounty, she said.

For homes on a well, no power also means no water, and could create a major public health risk, she said.

Additionally, the infrastructure in areas like the Agricultural Reserve is older, less reliable and not on Pepco’s priority list for upgrading, she said.

“We are usually the last to be reconnected,” she said.

To those yelling at Pepco, Taylor encouraged stepping back and letting the utility do its job.

“This was an historic event, please give them a chance to restore the power,” she said.

“Folks are understandably frustrated,” said Maryland House Economic Matters Chairman Dereck E. Davis (D-Dist. 25) of Upper Marlboro.

“It’s not just the inconvenience of the loss of power, but the fact that temperatures are in the triple digits,” said Davis, whose committee oversees laws that govern public utilities.

The recent heat wave has contributed to the first 2012 heat-related deaths in Maryland, the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene said.

A 59-year-old Rockville man and two male senior citizens from Wicomico County and Baltimore city died during this current heat wave.

High temperatures are expected to continue this week.

Davis said he has sympathy for people coping with “insufferable” heat without electricity to cool their homes or preserve their food and admiration for utility crews working hard in the heat to help them.

“These storms seem to be coming much more frequently and ferociously than in the past decade [and] we are going to have to take these things into account when we consider how to improve the system,” Davis said.

Davis added that “we are going to have to have an honest discussion with citizens about what to expect when storms come.”

Davis, who said Monday he had electric service at his home, said he is looking into purchasing a generator sometime soon, just in case.