Power companies brace for storms

Outages: Task force plans can improve readiness, but cable burial is a costly remedy.

May 12, 2000

CUT MORE limbs, bury more lines, prepare more crews. Communicate and cooperate better.

Those are the marching orders given to Maryland power companies from a governor's task force investigating massive, extended blackouts from a hurricane and an ice storm last year.

Four communities, including Annapolis and Ocean City, will test the feasibility of moving neighborhood electric lines from overhead to underground. The state will put $4 million into those pilot programs.

Although Maryland has required that power distribution lines installed since 1969 be buried, most system lines are still overhead and vulnerable to high winds and icing. It costs $500,000 a mile to bury the lines, which may then be subject to damage from flooding and construction digging.

Ultimately, that imperfect and long-term solution would impose massive costs on consumers and/or state and local governments. Potomac Electric Power Co. estimates a $1 billion cost to bury its 13,000 miles of lines. Even if state officials get a waiver of federal taxes (about 30 percent) on moving lines underground, the costs remain formidable.

More promising and immediate results should flow from plans for companies to improve communications and cooperation with each other during weather emergencies -- and to better inform their customers left in the dark. The state will order utilities to conduct drills of these emergency plans.

Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. is doubling its customer phone-in capacity, expanding its call on outside service restoration crews, and training more workers for overhead wire repairs. Pepco has taken similar steps for strengthening power systems and boosting customer service capability.

The state is urging utilities to do more preventive tree trimming, and to work closely with landowners along utility easements.

Some 900,000 utility customers were without power for days in the aftermath of January's ice storm and September's hurricane, mostly from lines downed by fallen limbs. The task force's recommendations should significantly reduce the chances of that happening again.

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