Climate change issue affecting Maryland energy providers -- Gazette.Net


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Maryland's electric utilities vary in how directly they address the still-contentious issue of climate change. But they all say they are adapting to stormier conditions that have marked the state's weather in recent years.

Pepco Region President Thomas H. Graham told state Sens. Brian E. Frosh and James C. Rosapepe in a letter this month that Pepco Holdings “discusses climate change at all levels in the Company.”

But, Baltimore Gas and Electric Co., the state's largest electric utility, has “no business plan that applies climate change to business on a day-to-day basis,” although it is committed to adapting to the “new normal for weather,” BGE Vice President Rob Gould said.

Although the debate about climate change continues, said SMECO spokesman Thomas Dennison, “The fact that we have experienced two of the three largest outage events in our 75-year history over the past 12 months cannot be ignored.”

Although the storms that caused recent outages forced SMECO to look for ways to improve, Dennison said, “The improvements we make to prepare for the next storm, heat wave or cold spell will not be made because of 'climate change.'

“They will be made based on sound engineering, our experience with our system here in Southern Maryland and because they are necessary to meet our mission.”

Under an executive order issued last month by Gov. Martin O'Malley (D), experts, including utility executives, are drafting recommendations on how to make the electric grid in Maryland more “resilient” in the face of severe weather and high temperatures.

The state has made a concerted effort recently to begin addressing climate change. Early this month, Department of Natural Resources Secretary John R. Griffin told a congressional panel that new directives already in use could influence future projects, especially those vulnerable to sea level rise.

As for the utilities, Pepco's and Delmarva Power's lines can withstand high temperatures in the near future, said Bob Hainey spokesman for Pepco Holdings, which owns the two companies.

Pepco's ongoing and planned reliability work includes redesigning and rebuilding the system “to meet most current, resilient and appropriate construction standards, as well as the application of newer technology,” Graham said in his response to the letter from Frosh (D-Dist. 16) of Bethesda and Rosapepe (D-Dist. 21) of College Park.

Pepco stepped up its reliability work after the Maryland Public Service Commission opened an investigation into the utility's performance two years ago following winter and summer storms that produced widespread outages lasting days.

And within six months, the company is expected to deliver an analysis on its options for undergrounding lines, as directed by O'Malley's order.

“Pepco also designs and builds the electric system to meet National Electric Safety Code (NESC) standards, which [include] heat-related and other demand ... and winds up to 120 miles per hour,” Graham told the senators in his letter.

The senators sent letters to both Pepco and BGE urging the utilities to take more aggressive steps to prepare for global warming.

“BGE is committed to further adapting to what appears to be the new normal for weather — more storms, stronger storms and extreme temperatures — and evaluating the ability of infrastructure to withstand those extremes,” Gould told The Gazette in an email.

And BGE plans for and drills its employees on responding to all types of weather, he said.

BGE's new parent company, Exelon, has been recognized for its environmental sustainability efforts by several evaluators, including Newsweek magazine in its “2011 Green Rankings” and the Dow Jones Sustainability North America Index.

SMECO, meanwhile, is “extremely proud” of its restoration efforts in recent outages and that the system “held strong” during “some of the hottest stretches of days on record,” Dennison said in an email.

SMECO's system experienced some problems from heat and overloading, but the utility identifies those trouble spots and fixes them to avoid new outages, he said.

Potomac Edison's parent company, First Energy, highlights its efforts to reduce its carbon footprint and emissions in its sustainability report. Potomac Edison serves Western Maryland, including a portion of northwestern Montgomery County.

First Energy's renewable energy portfolio includes a long-term contract to purchase power from Maryland Solar Farm, which is being built on 160 acres in Hagerstown. It is expected to begin generating power in 2013.

If temperatures do rise — as climate change adherents say is occurring — one way to cope is to reduce demand, which usually is highest when it is hot.

Measures to reduce energy use, mandated in 2008 under the EmPOWER Maryland Energy Efficiency Act , are one way to reduce greenhouse gases and conserve resources.

Under an order the PSC issued in December, BGE, Pepco, Delmarva, Potomac Edison and SMECO were directed to work together to come up with programs to meet the EmPOWER Act's annual energy use goals by 2015, which the PSC said the utilities were not on track to do.

The utilities said they will meet those goals, although in a letter last week to the PSC, the Maryland Energy Administration said that “there have been few tangible signs of progress” from the utilities' collaboration.

This week, Lauren Urbanek, MEA's manager for energy efficiency programs, said the utilities can meet the goals “if they institute new programs that are in development.”

Pepco and Delmarva expect to achieve the 2015 goals by reducing energy use annually by 20 percent and 16 percent, respectively, Hainey said in an email.

BGE also “expects to make significant progress towards achievement of the 2015 goals, which are the most aggressive targets of any state in the U.S.,” Gould said in an email. And, Gould said, BGE anticipates that energy-use reductions among its residential customers will exceed the 2015 target.

As for SMECO, it has met 91 percent of its EmPOWER goal and is confident it will reach 100 percent before 2015, Dennison said.

Also, Potomac Edison is “on track” to meet its 2015 EmPOWER goals, spokesman Todd Meyer said in an email.

“Some of the larger utilities may be lagging, which means the Maryland utilities as a total group may fall short of the goal. But Potomac Edison is on its way,” he said.

mhyslop@gazette.net