Two state senators are urging the Maryland Public Service Commission to fine the state's two largest electric utilities more than $100 million each to pay for a National Guard-like “surge reserve” to help restore power after major storm outages.
At the peak, the latest storm June 29 knocked out power to more than 1 million customers of Baltimore Gas & Electric Co., the state's largest electric provider, and No. 2 Pepco. Some Marylanders went many days without power.
Unlike crews called in from distant electric utilities, the home-based surge units would have the advantage of knowing the local utility's system and service territory, as well as the ability to start work at the same time as resident crews, Sens. James C. Rosapepe and Brian E. Frosh told the Public Service Commission in a letter dated Thursday.
Retired electricians, linemen and linewomen, police, fire and rescue workers and members of the military could be recruited, and surge reserve members would agree to report for duty if called, the senators said.
The letter from Rosapepe and Frosh was just the latest missive sent this week to the PSC, which regulates the state's utilities.
Earlier, 29 legislators from Montgomery and Prince George's counties asked the commission to deny Pepco's request for a 4 percent rate hike. A decision is expected soon on the rate increase request.
And, the heads of Maryland's seven largest jurisdictions urged the PSC to determine which parts of the two utilities' service areas could most benefit from burying power lines and whether the agency should set mandatory staffing levels for the utilities.
The PSC has the authority to create the surge reserve and to levy fines to fund it, said Frosh (D-Dist. 16) of Chevy Chase, who said the idea came from Rosapepe (D-Dist. 21) of College Park.
“It's something that ought to take a couple of months, not a couple of years,” said Rosapepe, who with Frosh asked the PSC to develop a plan for the reserve within 60 days.
In their letter to PSC Chairman Douglas R.M. Nazarian, Rosapepe and Frosh reminded the commission that, under laws the legislature approved in 2011, the PSC can fine a utility as much as $25,000 per customer per day for failing to meet new, more stringent, less subjective standards for providing reliable service.
“Despite the legislature's clear policy direction and creation of additional tools to enforce compliance, the power companies failed over the past week to meet their responsibilities to more than one million Marylanders ... Altogether more than 3 million days of power service were lost,” Rosapepe and Frosh told Nazarian in their letter.
“Obviously this is intolerable if Maryland is to protect its economy,” they said, urging the commission “to hold the utilities accountable, to provide powerful financial incentives for them to modernize, and to make sure last week's crisis is never repeated.”
The letter also asks the PSC to develop a plan for burying at least those power lines that can be moved underground at the lowest cost, with the biggest improvement in reliability.
If the PSC fined Pepco and BGE $250 per customer for each day after July 1 without electric service, Pepco would be assessed $106 million and BGE $144 million, they estimated.
And even that may not be enough cost to spur the companies to invest enough to make adequate gains in reliability, they said.
The $1 million the PSC fined Pepco last year for “'imprudence'” was “pocket change,” Frosh said. “They spend more than that lobbying in a year,” he added.
Rosapepe said he'd like to see a surge reserve in place before another major outage, with the potential to leave thousands of households and businesses without power for many days, occurs.
Even before the recent severe weather utilities such as Pepco and BGE did not have enough crews to get power back on quickly because they cut back on workers trained to maintain the system, Rosapepe said.
Asked to respond to the senators' proposal, a Pepco spokeswoman said in a statement that utility officials have not had time to review the senators' proposal in detail.
Pepco's statement defended its preparations and storm response, saying it has 147 permanent, union employees on its overhead line crews and 400 overhead line contractors, including many based in the Washington region. The utility said it has more line workers than it has ever had, and call-in assistance is often available from nearby Delmarva Power and Atlantic City Electric, which are also owned by Pepco Holdings.
BGE vice president Robert Gould said it is “extremely premature to be calling for any action to be taken prior to a full, fact-based review by the Maryland Public Service Commission.”
Weather service forecasts were inadequate to warn utilities of the storm and its intensity, yet BGE restored service to nearly the same number of customers — and in about the same time — as it did after Tropical Storm Irene last year, with about 1,500 fewer workers, Gould said.
Rosapepe said he has not talked with utility executives about the proposal, but he has discussed it with employees of the PSC and Montgomery County officials.
And he and Frosh have set up web-based petitions for consumers to add their names.
Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett said he supports the approach that Rosapepe and Frosh outlined in their letter.
As for Pepco, “they wait too long to get [outside] crews in ... everybody else got crews in sooner,” Leggett said.
Between the June 29 storm and mid-afternoon Thursday, the PSC received 44 formal outage complaints and the agency is still tabulating phone messages sent to commission members, PSC spokeswoman Regina Davis said in an email.
The PSC has until July 20 to decide or Pepco's proposed rate hike, which would add about $5.56 per month to the average residential customers bill, goes into effect.