Maryland electric utilities must be able to meet higher objective standards for keeping the power on and for restoring customers faster, even after major storms, state regulators said in an order issued this week.
In the order, Maryland’s Public Service Commission laid out plans to issue new regulations requiring utilities to make their electricity distribution system better able to provide reliable service in severe weather, to have staff able to repair damage quickly and give customers more accurate estimates of when their service will be restored.
The PSC’s order directs the utilities to file by May 31 a plan and cost-benefit analysis outlining what they could do within five years to improve electric service reliability.
The order, issued Wednesday, also directs PSC staff by Sept. 30 to draft new regulations for the commission’s review and to evaluate ways that “would more directly and transparently align reliable service with the companies’ distribution rates and that reduce returns or otherwise penalize substandard performance.”
And it directs utilities to work with PSC staff to figure out how to better work with local governments and customers to restore service quickly and communicate better during outages, particularly to protect people who are vulnerable or have critical medical needs.
Further, the PSC ordered utilities to provide them with a series of reports and analyses, between March 29 and Aug. 30, on their staffing and how and when they can improve communication as well as make power delivery more reliable and resilient.
Last fall, a state task force recommended new charges be added to electric bills so utilities could do what is necessary to keep the power on during and after storms.
Although the task force did not prescribe what work utilities must undertake, 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.
BGE spokesman Robert Gould read a statement Thursday that said the utility agrees with the commission that it is important to look at options such as selective undergrounding.
“Increasingly, customers have come to rely on electricity to power a variety of devices in their homes and offices — many of which did not exist just a decade or two ago,” he said. “Electric systems in this country were not designed to meet customers’ evolving expectations of uninterrupted power.”
Myra Oppel, Pepco’s regional director of communications, said the utility was pleased that the PSC “found that we met our obligations to respond to outages caused by last summer’s derecho.”
“We share the commission’s interest in improving the reliability of service to our customers and will continue to make this our priority,” Oppel said.
Reacting to the PSC report, Sen. James C. Rosapepe (D-Dist. 21) of College Park, a frequent critic of the utilities’ performance, expressed disappointment that the PSC didn’t “hold BGE and Pepco accountable for their failure to keep the lights on.”
Rosapepe said the state’s businesses and residents have lost “hundreds of millions” of dollars in storm damage.
“Yet,” he said, “the PSC required no fines, no undergrounding of power lines and no ‘surge reserve’ of technicians to promptly repair storm damage. Just more studies — by the utilities themselves. How disappointing.”