Nobody can dispute the fact that the state’s public utilities had their hands full during and after the June 29 derecho that struck Maryland.
To put the quick and violent storm that was accompanied by wind gusts and intense lightning in some perspective, Baltimore Gas & Electric Co. called it “one of the most destructive” in the utility’s nearly 200-year history.
Those words were in BGE’s post-storm report to the Maryland Public Service Commission that the utilities are required to file when there are major-outage events. And there were major outages, to be sure: At the peak, more than 1 million customers of BGE and Pepco, the state’s two largest electric providers, were without power.
The Pepco and BGE reports share some common themes. They say that, unlike with hurricanes, there was no warning as to the power and destructive nature of the fast moving storm. And, they say they performed about as well as could be expected under the circumstances.
“As demonstrated in this Report, Pepco restored power as quickly as possible, particularly given the sheer number of outages,” that utility’s document says. And BGE said it restored full power “in about the same timeframe as it did during Hurricane Irene.”
Both utilities clearly were put on the defensive during the outages, which in some cases lasted many days, and in the aftermath, when both customers and customer-politicians came at them full bore.
The reports do, in fact, include some lessons learned.
Pepco says it will assess whether nursing homes have backup generators and that it wants to expand a pilot program to get materials needed for repairs more quickly to individual job sites. BGE, meanwhile, noted its support for Gov. Martin O’Malley’s recent executive order to study steps to strengthen Maryland’s electric grid. And it said it conducted about 25 refresher training sessions for public safety patrollers and standby personnel between June 30 and July 5, among other measures.
Still, critics are looking somewhat askance at the reports, particularly their general thrust that falls back on how the storm blindsided the utilities. It was an Act of God — and then some.
Those critics, tired of going through a similar routine with each strong thunderstorm or blizzard, say the responses, particularly Pepco’s, sadly miss the point. They question whether the latter utility has enough personnel on the ground proactively. That’s part of the impetus for a proposal by state Sens. James C. Rosapepe and Brian E. Frosh to establish a backup force that could be called in during a major outage situation. They would argue that the issue takes on more urgency if climate change warnings that forecast more frequent and powerful future storms are to be believed.
The utilities have been largely noncommittal about the backup “surge force” proposal. And while they are at least giving lip service to calls to study burying some major power lines, they have been loud and clear in warning about the projected cost.
With the actual and psychological cleanup from the June 29 storm in wrap-up mode, some future attention must focus on whether these post-storm reports become as predictable as the unfortunate outages that necessitate their being written.