If Maryland electric customers want to ensure that major storm-related outages last no more than a few days, utilities will have to make big — and costly — changes along their power lines, utility executives told the Maryland Public Service Commission on Thursday.
The comments came after PSC chairman Douglas R.M. Nazarian asked what it would take for the utilities to make sure that outages don't exceed two days in duration.
“If you want a different outcome, it's going to be vastly more expensive than what we've done to date,” Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. Chief Executive Officer Kenneth DeFontes said during a hearing called by the commission on the performance of the utilities in restoring power to more than a million Marylanders who lost service after a derecho struck with little warning June 29.
“If the goal is to say that we don't want to have more than two- to three-day outages, we're going to have to re-engineer the system,” including more undergrounding and more tree trimming, DeFontes said.
But removing large numbers of trees that are close enough to fall on power lines is not realistic and unlikely to be accepted by the community, he said.
And “we're never going to have enough manpower ... standing around waiting” so that service can be restored within a few days after storms that severely impact the power system, he said.
“A lot of people want the PSC to order universal undergrounding” of power lines, Nazarian said.
“It is vividly clear that expectations are inconsistent with what we are delivering,” DeFontes commented.
Although BGE and other utilities are considering burying more electric lines, many overhead lines do not need to be moved because they are “less imperiled by trees,” Defontes said.
On the question of obtaining more workers to get service restored faster, Commissioner Lawrence Brenner said the response of utilities to a proposal for a surge reserve force to provide backup focused too much on the difficulty of finding qualified technicians and linemen.
Brenner said the companies need to consider that such a reserve force — imagined as a National Guard-like complement of workers who would be trained to pitch in when needed — could help with tree removal, communication and coordination.
Nazarian said he did not know yet whether the reserve worker proposal, introduced by state Sens. James C. Rosapepe (D-Dist. 21) of College Park and Brian E. Frosh (D-Dist. 16) of Chevy Chase, has “real potential.” But Nazarian said there “may be” functions other than line work that could be performed by such a force.
Commissioners asked BGE why the utility refused to give county governments requested customer information so county workers could check on residents with health problems who were without electric power.
DeFontes said the company had concerns about the protection of the private information.
“You are the guys who wanted us to authorize customer lists for third-party electric suppliers,” Nazarian shot back. “What conceivable personal privacy information could thwart you from giving that information to [public safety workers]?” Nazarian said.
“We're willing to change that policy ... if you feel that's something we should do,” DeFontes told the commission.
Pepco executives were expected to testify Friday.
Pepco, which has been the most heavily criticized electric utility in the state, issued a statement Thursday saying that when it goes before the commission it intends to discuss ways to improve.
According to its statement, Pepco is working with emergency management agencies to gather more information about critical care facilities so it can better prioritize restoration, developing less confusing messages to use for customer callbacks, “exploring ways” to update estimates of when power will be restored and considering ways to improve reliability including undergrounding more power lines.
In a report discussed during the hearing, PSC regulatory economists William Linzey and Matthew Mansfield noted that Pepco and BGE restored power more quickly than did AEP Ohio, which experienced comparable circumstances from the derecho.
Dominion Power — a utility that serves much of Virginia, including many Washington suburbs — did restore power more quickly. But, the PSC report said that was partly because many of Dominion's outages were based on transmission lines that, when fixed, restored power to more customers at once. Dominion also was able to call in its own crews from parts of Virginia that were not affected by the storm.