Region still suffers from the derecho effect -- Gazette.Net


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One year after the derecho ripped through Montgomery County, leaving many in the dark for eight days, residents are turning to backup power sources should nature’s fury return, while Pepco is turning to state regulators for more money to improve its system.

Forecast as a thunderstorm, the June 29, 2012, derecho took the region by surprise when within minutes strong winds downed trees and snapped power lines.

The outages that followed the derecho left many customers resenting Pepco, which has historically been criticized for unreliable service.

A year later, Abbe Milstein of Rockville, who started Powerupmontco in direct response to the derecho, said if another severe storm hits, Pepco’s system cannot weather it.

“There are still significant problems with the infrastructure and though Pepco has been making improvements, it can’t neglect its infrastructure and vegetation management for a decade and expect it to bounce back.”

Pepco confirmed it is investing in its infrastructure. It also is forging partnerships with local emergency response organizations and working to build trust with its customers, spokeswoman Courtney Nogas said in an email.

Pepco invested $182 million in capital improvements in 2012 and currently is investing more than $2.9 billion in capital projects aimed at reliability enhancement during the next five years. It doubled its customer service representatives, more than doubled its phone lines and since September 2010, has trimmed nearly 5,800 miles of trees, she said.

“We have done a lot to prepare, but no amount of preparation can significantly harden an overhead system against a storm like last summer’s derecho, which provided little warning and caused massive destruction ...,” she wrote in an email. “We have incorporated best practices, especially when it comes to emergency preparedness, while we continue to invest in the reliability, safety, and resiliency of the infrastructure that provides the essential foundation for providing electricity to our customers.”

77 percent without power

In Pepco’s post-derecho report, the utility said forecasts did not foresee that the storm, which began near Chicago, would retain its force when it hit the Appalachian Mountains.

But it did, packing straight-line, near-hurricane-force winds.

Just after the storm, the number of Pepco customers without power in Maryland peaked at 410,679, leaving almost 77 percent of Pepco’s 534,601 Maryland customers without lights, fans, refrigeration or air conditioning, according to the utility’s report. An additional 14,000 outages had other causes, including a heat wave that left customers sweltering.

By the time it fully restored electric service, Pepco and assisting outside crews fixed 2,006 downed wires and replaced 216 poles, 200 transformers and 1,999 fuses, as well as repaired equipment at two substations in Maryland, the report said.

However, Milstein said residents have come to expect that when the wind blows in Montgomery, the power will go out. So some have purchased generators to avoid weeklong outages. Generators range in price from $80 for a portable one to $5,000 or more for a whole-home generator.

Tom Fletcher, his wife and two young daughters had been living in their house in Chevy Chase for only three weeks before the derecho rolled through their neighborhood, leaving them in the dark for eight days.

But the derecho wasn’t the only time their neighborhood had lost power. Fletcher said his area has a tendency to go dark, and after experiencing the derecho he thought a generator was the best way to go.

“The derecho was the defining moment,” he said. “That’s when I thought it’s time to do something.”

Fletcher said if it wasn’t for having two young daughters, he might not have bought the generator. It’s very important to keep the refrigerator on to keep milk ready for his daughters, he said.

The Fletchers have used their generator once since the derecho, during a storm that knocked their neighborhood’s power out for three days.

Joy Turner of Sandy Spring said she has used her new generator once or twice, but only for a couple of hours each time.

Turner bought a generator right after the derecho, which left her neighborhood without power for five days.

When the power does go out, it is always at inopportune times — such as at night or when cooking a meal — but Turner said Pepco’s reliability has gotten better.

“We haven’t had to use [the generator] as frequently as we thought we would,” she said.

A five-year plan

Pepco started a five-year plan to improve reliability in 2010 after an investigation by the Maryland Public Service Commission into the utility’s reliability and quality found it operated with unacceptably low reliability for years.

The average number of outages experienced by customers worsened every year from 2004 to 2010, which the commission said in its report of the investigation, “speaks volumes about [Pepco’s] steadily deteriorating level of reliability and coincides with its poor vegetation management practices.”

Costing $1 billion, the plan involves infrastructure improvements and more vegetation management or tree trimming.

In the last year, customers served by upgraded power lines saw a 39 percent reduction in average power outages, and when outages did occur, they did not last as long, resolving on average 42 percent faster, Nogas said.

But Pepco’s improvements are not a gift to customers. The utility has asked the Public Service Commission, which regulates utilities, for permission to raise its rates to add a net $60.8 million in revenue each year, a change that would cost the average residential customer $7.13 more per month.

On top of the rate increase, the utility also asked the commission for permission to charge a graduated fee over the next three to four years to fund resiliency improvements to its grid in response to recommendations by the Governor’s Grid Resiliency Task Force, convened last summer in response to the derecho.

The commission is scheduled to rule on Pepco’s latest request for more money on July 12, and Milstein said she has some major concerns. Powerupmontco was party to the case, filing in opposition to Pepco’s request.

But Milstein said the commission has a new chairman, W. Kevin Hughes, and the parties have no idea which way he will lean.

Former chairman Douglas R.M. Nazarian took a strong position against upfront charges like the one requested by Pepco, Milstein said.

Under Nazarian, the commission denied $50 million of Pepco’s previous $68 million request and acknowledged the utility’s poor performance, fining it $1 million for failure to properly maintain its system.

kalexander@gazette.net

kpohlman@gazette.net