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Almost 8,000 Takoma Park residents remained without power on the morning of July 5, nearly a week after a violent storm had Pepco scrambling to repair its lines and its already damaged reputation across the region.
In the storm’s wake, Eric Hensal, a Ward 5 activist and candidate in this month’s special city council election, has proposed a solution he said will ensure Takoma Park avoids a repeat.
He wants the city to take charge of its own electricity by starting a not-for-profit municipal power company.
“We would take care of our city first,” Hensal said. “If any city around here can do it, it’s Takoma Park.”
The concept of a publicly owned and city-operated electric utility is not uncommon. In the last 10 years, 16 new public power utilities have started nationwide, according to American Public Power Association spokesperson Ursula Schryver. The APPA is a trade association that represents about 2,000 public power utilities. Schryver argued public power is a cheaper option that allows for faster and more attentive service in the case of outages.
But Takoma Park would likely have to wade through a years-long fight with Pepco, which provides power for more than 788,000 customers in Maryland and Washington, D.C., for control of the lines.
“It’s unusual for an industrial utility to voluntarily sell the system. It does typically go to court,” Schryver said. “The community has to be committed to doing it.”
Hensal said it’s an idea worth looking into. He held a conference call on Monday with Schryver and about 60 interested residents.
“In an ideal world, you actually get control of the lines, control of the maintenance and you control the source of the electricity,” Hensal said. “You don’t have the overhead costs and dividends to pay out, and you don’t have to launch million-dollar advertising campaigns. It just gets down to providing the core services with very tangible benefits to the people of Takoma Park for a very long time.”
Hagerstown’s Electric Division buys its power from regional power giant FirstEnergy Corp., then distributes it to residents through its own substations and power lines with maintenance workers and administrative staff, according to Electric Operations Manager Nathan Fridinger. In Easton, the city’s electric utility has two power plants with 16 diesel generators and two combustion turbines but typically buys electricity from elsewhere because it is cheaper.
“We go out and buy energy for our customers and sell it to them for the same price we paid for it,” said Easton Utilities Vice President of Operations Geoffrey Oxnam. “That’s important because that’s money our customers can spend right here in our community.”
But Hagerstown and Easton have public utility companies that have long been entrenched in the community. Hagerstown has been providing electricity to residents for more than 75 years, though Fridinger said it has been difficult to extend city power lines to recently annexed areas of the city without approval from the Maryland Public Service Commission.
Easton’s power company is the oldest in the state. In 1923, it became the first municipality to own all of its utilities. The city of nearly 16,000 in Talbot County also provides cable, Internet, water and natural gas.
Takoma Park would be able to choose which sources to buy power from, Hensal said, allowing the city to avoid purchasing electricity produced in nuclear power plants. The city has a longstanding nuclear-free ordinance.
Last fall, voters in Boulder, Colo., approved a ballot initiative to start a municipal power company and sever ties with Minneapolis-based Xcel Energy to increase the amount of electricity they get from renewable energy sources.
The Maryland PSC would first have to approve a municipality’s public power plans before the price of acquiring lines, substations and other facilities would be determined through eminent domain regulations.
Schryver said that process would take six or seven years. In Winter Park, Fla., an Orlando suburb of nearly 28,000, voters in 2003 chose to approve $50 million in bonds to buy out Progress Energy Florida Inc.’s facilities in the city and start a municipal utility company.
Hensal said it’s time Takoma Park at least considers a similar move.
“This is how I see what the discussion needs to be,” Hensal said. “People complain about Pepco, but there’s nothing that pops up that’s an actual sort of permanent solution. We would be in a position to directly choose if we want to make that investment.”