Pepco executives told Maryland regulators Friday that reducing large outages to no more than two or three days, as customers seem to expect, would require ensuring that many electric power lines be shielded from storm damage, including by undergrounding the lines.
“I do think part of the solution is we have to remove a significant portion of the system out of harm's way,” David Velazquez, Pepco Holdings executive vice president for power delivery, told the Maryland Public Service Commission.
The Pepco executives' testimony came in the second day of hearings that the PSC called in Baltimore to weigh the utilities' performance in restoring power to more than a million Marylanders who lost service after a derecho struck with little warning June 29. The outages left some customers without electricity for more than a week.
“These outages go on too long,” Commissioner Lawrence Brenner told Pepco's executives. “We're not going to accept that this is an aberration anymore.”
The biggest delays in restoring power were caused by uprooted trees toppling onto lines, George Nelson, Pepco Holdings vice president for operations and engineering, told the commission.
Nelson said the tree canopy in the region includes many trees that were planted in the 1930s and 1940s that now are old and fragile.
“No amount of tree trimming is going to remove or eradicate those trees,” Nelson said.
To eliminate the threat posed by trees to power lines, a significant part of the system would have to run underground, Velazquez said.
“I don't know what parts get undergrounded yet” or whether parts of rights-of-way need to be wider, said Velazquez, but he said the company is searching for answers.
Velazquez's response followed similar ones from Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. executives Thursday about what it would take to ensure outages from major storms last about half as long.
“If you want a different outcome, it's going to be vastly more expensive than what we've done to date,” BGE Chief Executive Officer Kenneth DeFontes told the commission.
That kind of change would require re-engineering the system, including more undergrounding, said DeFontes, who added that communities would not accept removing large numbers of trees.
Pepco came under fire from the commission again Thursday for unsatisfactory communication with customers who want more specific information about when to expect service to be restored in their neighborhoods, rather than broad estimates used by Pepco.
A new customer information system, which is expected to be operating in 2014 to replace one installed in the 1960s, will allow the utility to store more information and offer customers more options for getting information, said Charles Dickerson, Pepco's vice president for customer care.