Pepco studying cost of burying power lines -- Gazette.Net



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Pepco officials have told the Maryland Public Service Commission they will deliver, within six months, an analysis on burying "all or portions" of the utility's overhead lines and lines that supply distribution to substations.

The utility is working on the analysis, Douglas Micheel, its assistant general counsel, wrote in a letter to the PSC dated July 13.

Pepco said a closer look at “selective undergrounding” is one component of its plan to enhance reliability. That plan was presented to the PSC in August 2010 after the commission opened an investigation into Pepco's reliability in the wake of public outcry about the utility's performance following a series of large, widespread outages in the wake of storms.

Since June 29, when a “derecho” storm with near-hurricane-force, straight-line winds toppled trees and power lines, more customer rage has been directed at the state's two largest electric utilities, Baltimore Gas & Electric and Pepco.

Hundreds of thousands of customers lost power for days — and some for more than a week.

After that storm, Pepco decided to look beyond selective undergrounding and “analyze the benefits and costs of more extensive undergrounding, and even complete undergrounding, of the overhead electric system,” the utility said in an emailed response to a question about when the decision was made.

In the past, the utility has said the cost of undergrounding lines could run into the millions of dollars per mile.

BGE Vice President Robert Gould said the utility moves lines underground on a “case-by-case basis,” but “we do think it is appropriate to have a public policy discussion related to the pros and cons of undergrounding.”

Meanwhile, the PSC is taking heat from some state and local leaders who say they have not been effective regulators.

Montgomery County Councilman Hans Riemer (D-At large) of Silver Spring is calling for Gov. Martin O'Malley to dismiss the commissioners and overahul the agency.

“It's time for Governor Martin O'Malley to fire PSC Chairman Douglas Nazarian and the rest of the PSC, and replace them with real customer advocates,” reads a petition Riemer has posted at a MoveOn.org-sponsored website. He has circulated to constituents, supporters and others who have contacted him, he said.

“Their job is to protect consumers from monopoly providers,” Riemer said of the commissioners.

To do that, Riemer said, the agency “needs changes at the Commission and staff level.”

O'Malley spokeswoman Takirra Winfield said in an emailed reply that the governor “understands the frustration and anger of those citizens and businesses that have suffered repeated and prolonged outages.”

But he “reminds everyone” new regulations have been set to improve reliability and steps have been taken to make utilities accountable, including eight public hearings the PSC will have in August to hear complaints related to the June 29 outages.

The meeting locations and times have not been announced, but they will take place at locations in Pepco's and BGE's service territories. Information gathered from the meetings will help the commission form questions it will ask the utilities at a Sept. 13 hearing in Baltimore, Nazarian said in an announcement.

Despite recent measures, Riemer said he was “stunned” the regulators had not looked harder at utilities' performance until almost two years ago, when they asked Pepco how they measured up against their peers in keeping power on and restoring service.

Analyses showed Pepco ranked near the bottom nationally and compared to other Maryland utilities.

In separate letters last week, two state senators and the executives of Maryland's seven largest jurisdictions urged the PSC to determine what parts of Pepco's and BGE's lines could be buried to help most in keeping the power on.

By late last week, the PSC had received 150 complaints about the performance of the utilities in outages from the June 29 storm, a PSC spokeswoman said.

In their letter to the PSC, Sens. James C. Rosapepe (D-Dist. 21) of College Park and Brian E. Frosh (D-Dist. 16) of Chevy Chase also urged the regulators to fine Pepco and BGE $100 million each and use the money to help establish a National-Guard-like surge force to help restore power in major outages.

Also, the PSC is slated to act, by Friday, on a 4 percent rate increase requested by Pepco. That request has drawn opposition from customers and organizations such as Progressive Maryland, which say Pepco should invest more of its profits in improvements and less on executive pay and stockholder dividends.

mhyslop@gazette.net