Task force calls for extra charge for utilities' upgrade -- Gazette.Net


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A state task force is recommending new charges be added to electric bills so utilities will do what is necessary to keep the power on during and after storms.

The task force report, released Wednesday, calls on the Maryland Public Service Commission to require utilities to accelerate from four years to two years the completion of some reliability enhancements that the regulatory agency recently mandated — including tree trimming and improvements to power lines that have performed poorly.

The report of the task force, which was appointed by Gov. Martin O'Malley (D), asks the regulatory agency to authorize utilities to charge a “tracker" fee to cover the costs of making those improvements earlier.

Although O'Malley on Wednesday did not offer estimates as to the size of the extra charge — that will be determined by the PSC — he said frustrated utility customers probably wouldn't balk at paying an extra dollar or two per month.

Among the task force recommendations were ways to make utilities more accountable, including requiring them to include at least some storm-related outages in measurements used to determine whether they comply with reliability standards.

The report also calls for a simplified report after major storms that would allow the public to get information quickly about the performance of the system by area, such as ZIP codes, as well as disclosing whether outages affected overhead or underground lines.

Although the task force did not prescribe what work utilities must do, it noted data showed underground lines lost power much less often than overhead lines in three recent storms.

The report urged the PSC to move toward more performance-based rate setting, to motivate investor-owned utilities to make reliable service a higher priority.

Executives from the state's two largest utilities, Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. and Pepco, told the PSC last month that reducing major outages to no more than two or three days would require shielding power lines from damage, including running more lines underground and more aggressive trimming or removal of trees.

Kenneth DeFontes, BGE chief executive officer, said those reliability improvements would be “vastly more expensive than what we've done to date.”

Comparisons have shown that Pepco's electric service reliability ranks near the bottom of utilities nationally and, in August 2010, the PSC opened an investigation into the utility's reliability in the wake of public outrage about a series of prolonged, widespread outages linked to summer and winter storms.

In an emailed response to the panel's recommendations, Pepco spokeswoman Myra Oppel said: “The report is thorough, and the task force did an admirable job in mapping out an overall plan to improve reliability for our customers.”

Both utilities are studying running more lines underground.

The task force report also called for more joint exercises between governments and utilities to improve emergency management in outages, as well as more information sharing about elderly and sick customers who registered for special consideration because they depend on electricity to power devices that sustain them.

The task force also recommended that the governor's Energy Future Coalition draft a pilot proposal for setting up how, for example, homes that use solar panels and return power to the grid could improve the future power landscape.

The group recommended that the pilot proposal be delivered by March 15, 2013.

Montgomery County Council President Roger Berliner (D-Dist. 1) of Bethesda said he wants his county to be the setting for the pilot proposal and that the managing director of the coalition and other experts will talk to the council about it Oct. 25.

Staff writer Daniel Leaderman contributed to this report.