Left in the dark for days after the June 29 derecho’s near-hurricane force winds ripped through Montgomery County, critics say it will take more than tree trimming or talk of $1 billion in reliability improvements to rebuild their confidence in Pepco.
“If we are going to make an investment of this magnitude then we need to be confident, as a society, that these investments will take us to where we want to be in the future,” Councilman Roger Berliner said.
Pepco’s reliability plan has been in place for two years and is working, said Jerry Pasternak, Maryland Pepco Region vice president. “We hear that from our customers.”
Pepco started a five-year plan to improve reliability in 2010. Costing $1 billion, the plan involves infrastructure improvements. In the last two years, Pepco customers experienced 38 percent fewer outages and 36 percent shorter outages because of the work, he said.
“We will be ready for the next storm,” Pasternak said. “The [questions] will be: What is the next storm? What type of storm is it? How much advance notice is there of the storm?”
Berliner (D-Dist. 1) of Bethesda said he sees hints of progress from Pepco but it is far from what is needed.
“We are going to spend upwards of $1 billion and essentially put Humpty Dumpty back together again with a little stronger glue that will be a little better than the old Humpty Dumpty but not even close to what it should have been,” he said.
Eric Hensal, a Takoma Park resident who is spearheading a push for a publicly owned power company in Montgomery, said Pepco has operated in much the same way for years. His effort, Public Power for Montgomery County, had 1,343 Facebook likes and a petition to demand the county do a feasibility study of publicly owned power in Montgomery had 113 signatures as of Dec. 21.
Hensal said he unearthed a 1952 mailer from Pepco where the investor-owned utility said it would not acknowledge a county ordinance subjecting it to potential revocation of its franchise, to an annual franchise fee of $81,727 that the county could adjust after 5-years, and to undergrounding of wires at the county’s discretion. In the mailing, the utility said it possessed a perpetual franchise from the state, obtained when it acquired the Great Falls Power Co. in 1947, and was not subject to the county’s law.
“They really haven’t changed,” Hensal said. “I see them as the slumlords of electricity. They’ve got the system and they are going to squeeze as much money out of it as they can with no sense of obligation to provide better service.”
Now with winter ahead, few can see marked improvement in Pepco’s performance or have confidence that efforts or promises it made will keep power on if another Snowmageddon strikes.
Councilman Hans Riemer (D-At Large) of Takoma Park said he doubts Pepco’s efforts thus far are sufficient to prevent days-long outages when the next storm strikes.
“I think, most likely, there is a slight improvement in our overall reliability and infrastructure from last year, and I mean slight,” he said. “And I don't know if a slight improvement is enough to avoid multi-day outages or not. I doubt it.”
Hensal was even less confident.
“We all know the next storm is coming, and we all know Pepco is not ready for it,” he said.
With the derecho, the region had little notice that what was forecast as a thunderstorm would bring near hurricane-force winds. About 410,000 Pepco customers in Maryland lost power during that storm.
However, when Hurricane Sandy approached in October, forecasts warned of its track days in advance, allowing the region time to prepare for the impact. About 44,000 Pepco customers in Maryland and Washington, D.C., lost power during Sandy.
No overhead electric system can withstand hurricanes, tornados and excessively high winds, Pasternak said.
But Pepco’s $1 billion effort which targets reliability — generally measured in non-storm events — is also preparation for future storms, and in its most recent rate case filing, the utility is proposing a new charge to fund efforts to further increase reliability during storms, he said.
The utility has asked the Maryland Public Service Commission for permission to impose a three-year grid resiliency charge. Starting at 96 cents per month in 2014, the charge would increase annually to $1.70 a month in 2015 and $1.93 a month in 2016, and would pay to accelerate tree trimming, upgrade 12 more feeders a year and put six distribution feeders underground.
Pepco has also asked for $60.8 million more in base distribution rates, or about $7.13 more each month from the average customers.
A 2010 investigation by the Maryland Public Service Commission into Pepco’s reliability and quality found the utility operated with unacceptably low reliability for years.
The average number of outages experienced by customers worsened every year from 2004 to 2010, which the PSC said in its report, “speaks volumes about [Pepco’s] steadily deteriorating level of reliability and coincides with its poor vegetation management practices.”
As part of its efforts to improve reliability, the utility has been trimming trees that threaten its infrastructure on a four-year cycle.
Pepco went through multiple rounds of tree trimming in Chevy Chase, Town Manager Todd Hoffman said.
Some residents expressed concern that the trimming was too aggressive, but Hoffman said he was advised by the town arborist that the trees will recover.
Tree trimming is a necessary evil as trees and power lines do not mix, Berliner said. But the county has failed to regulate tree trimming or even to reach an understanding with Pepco on tree trimming.
Sanford Daily, Town of Kensington manager, called the tree trimming a “no-win” for anybody.
While nobody likes trees that are aggressively trimmed, they also dislike losing electricity, he said.
Many trees fell during the derecho, contributing to the eight-day-long outages experienced in parts of Montgomery.
Despite the severity of the June 29 storm, the utility did not materially change its tree-trimming approach post-derecho.
“When you go through a major storm and people lose power, they notice more when we take the steps to address those concerns,” Pasternak explained. “So the tree trimming has been ongoing since 2010 at pretty much the same pace.”
But perceptions on that point are mixed across Montgomery.
Michael Guercin, a certified arborist and owner of Branches Tree Experts, said Pepco has been “more aggressive” in its tree trimming and removal since the derecho.
“Prior to [the derecho], they were doing minimal cutting on the trees,” said Guercin, whose company provides services in areas including Bethesda, Chevy Chase, Rockville and Silver Spring. “It does look that they have been doing more clearance from the wires.”
Public response to the summer storm’s aftermath likely drove Pepco to increase its activity, which included cutting more on each tree, he said.
Others felt it was the 2010 Snowmageddon that really drove Pepco’s efforts.
Wayne Noll, city forester for Rockville, said the city saw Pepco step up its tree trimming and removal after the winter storms of 2010, maintaining a higher level of routine maintenance with more frequent appearances than it had prior.
“I think that really sparked them to increase their tree trimming,” Noll said.
Miti Figueredo, director of the Eastern Montgomery Regional Services Center, said tree trimming after the 2010 winter storms “left an impression on people.” At the time, some residents were concerned about the severity of the tree trimming, while others were supportive of the tree trimming they hoped would help prevent outages, she said.
“I haven’t heard from residents about an uptick since the derecho,” she said.
The derecho might have brought greater devastation to Eastern Montgomery had Pepco not done what it had in terms of tree trimming prior to the storm, she said.
In Takoma Park, Todd Bolton, city arborist, said Pepco “didn’t do anything in response to the derecho that they weren’t already doing.” He added that Pepco is still working on its same program planned in response to the 2010 storms.
Pepco spokesman Bob Hainey said in an email Dec. 19 that Pepco will continue trimming as part of its reliability enhancement efforts.
“We continue to trim trees with the objective of achieving a minimum of four-years’ growth clearance and removal of all branches that overhang the main portions of our circuits,” Hainey said in that email to The Gazette. “The standards to which we remove vegetation is in compliance with the Maryland State RM43 standards, which set a minimum to which utilities in the state of Maryland are required to meet for vegetation management practices.”
Rather than merely cutting trees or patching an aging system to become more reliable, Berliner said he and others are pushing Pepco to invest in innovations such as “perfect” power — an ideal system where consumers will have control over their own energy destiny, rather than having it imposed upon them by a sole supplier — distributed power, green power, and microgrids.
Pasternak said Pepco is working to harden underground cable and extend its life as well as invest in technology such as distribution automation, which can reroute power to limit the number of customers affected by outages, and circuit reclosers that can open and reclose circuits to help restore power.
Additionally, much of its efforts to modernize the grid involve adding communication capabilities that enable parts of the system to communicate with other parts, sense problems, and calculate and implement solutions.
Staff Writer Jessica Ablamsky contributed to this report.