Picture a widespread power outage during and after a major storm (what, you say, that’s not hard to do). Now, picture a mobilized force of retired linemen and linewomen, electricians, police, fire, military and rescue workers assisting the state’s electric utilities in getting the power back up and running for not-yet-harried customers. Unrealistic? Impractical? An interesting, outside-the-box idea?
Well, that’s exactly what two state senators — Brian E. Frosh (D-Dist. 16) of Bethesda and James C. Rosapepe (D-Dist. 21) of College Park — are proposing. The duo sent a letter recently to Maryland Public Service Commission Chairman Douglas R.M. Nazarian urging the PSC, which oversees the state’s utilities, to fine Maryland’s two largest utilities — Baltimore Gas & Electric Co. and Pepco — more than $100 million each to pay for a “surge reserve.” They compared the emergency reserve to a National Guard unit. Rosapepe came up with the idea, and Frosh requested that the PSC draft a plan for the reserve within 60 days.
The PSC is authorized to fine a utility up to $25,000 per customer per day for failing to meet new reliability standards. The lawmakers cited the fact that power was knocked out by the June 29 derecho to more than a million utility customers, some for many days.
Needless to say, the utilities responded cautiously to the surge reserve proposal. As of Wednesday, Pepco still did not have a position on the senators’ proposal. And in a July 13 story by staff writer Margie Hyslop, 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.”
The topic of staffing, which the surge reserve addresses indirectly, is touchy for the utilities, especially Pepco, which has received the bulk of public criticism. A number of officials and consumers have questioned the adequacy of Pepco’s staffing. They also have claimed that storm recovery suffers when personnel called in from faraway utilities during outages aren’t familiar with the local territory.
A letter below from George Nelson, vice president of operations and engineering for Pepco Holdings Inc., makes the case that Pepco has 147 linemen on staff, with another 400 or so contractors. By comparison, he says, the utility 15 years ago had 162 linemen on staff, with about 155 contractors.
As if in response to some of the criticism, the letter also notes that many of the contractors have a long-term relationship with Pepco and are “local to the Washington region.” In making their case for a surge reserve, Rosapepe and Frosh emphasized that the surge crews would have the advantage of knowing the local utility’s system and service area.
A basic question surrounding the surge reserve is how many retirees would be qualified to do the necessary work during a major outage? It’s one thing to be a retired police officer, it’s another to be capable of repairing a damaged transformer. Still, the idea of a surge reserve is intriguing. At the least, the very call for one by a couple of lawmakers demonstrates the frustration with the size and frequency of power outages in the region. Just like with consideration of burying of some power lines — a proposal that Gov. Martin O’Malley recognized Wednesday in his executive order to study ways to strengthen the state’s power grid — the surge reserve proposal demands to be taken seriously.