BGE says it reacted better to Isabel than to Floyd

Outages were restored twice as fast as in 1999

October 21, 2003|By Lorraine Mirabella | Lorraine Mirabella,SUN STAFF

Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. told state regulators yesterday it turned in a "substantially improved" performance in responding to Tropical Storm Isabel's widespread power outages, compared with its response to Tropical Storm Floyd four years ago and spent more than $80 million repairing the widespread damage.

The utility, one of six that filed storm reports with the Maryland Public Service Commission yesterday, said it had pumped millions of dollars into new technology and system upgrades since Floyd and started preparing for Isabel before it hit.

That enabled it to restore power to 790,000 people in eight days, more than twice the number of outages restored in the same time during the 1999 storm, said BGE, which serves more than 1 million business and residential customers in Baltimore and Central Maryland.

Yesterday's reports were made a day before utility executives were to face a joint hearing in Annapolis on their companies' response to a storm that left more than 1 million Marylanders without electricity for more than a week.

"The citizens of the state of Maryland, and we as elected representatives, need to know what happened," Del. Derek E. Davis, chairman of the House Economic Matters Committee, said yesterday. "Did they make all the necessary preparations in anticipation of the storm? ... What things can we do in the future?

"Obviously, you can't prevent some of it," he said. "But to the extent we can lessen the impact and make things easier on the residents, that's what we want to focus on."

In addition the PSC will hold hearings on the utilities' performance after the commission's technical staff examines the storm reports and makes recommendations.

"After that process, the commissioners will then decide on the appropriate actions," said Chrys Wilson, a spokeswoman for the PSC.

In its report, BGE said $10 million of the $80.6 million in damages Isabel caused its property would be covered by insurance. The company said yesterday that it does not expect to make up the expense through rate increases.

"We've made a lot of progress over Hurricane Floyd four years ago," said Kenneth W. DeFontes Jr., BGE vice president of electric transmission and distribution. "Obviously we'd all like to do better. Certainly there were customers that had hardships over that period of time. We were dealing with a very severe event that caused a lot of damage."

Improvements made since Tropical Storm Floyd include annual storm drills, a new automated call system to eliminate busy signals and a new outage system that analyzes calls and groups them by location and time of day and a bigger investment in tree trimming and maintenance. BGE also said it started the planning for Isabel a week in advance, calling in 300 out of state crews before the storm hit.

Legislators at today's hearing also are likely to focus on preventative measures, including tree-trimming and system maintenance programs.

"We are increasingly hearing that tree pruning was a big issue," Davis said. "If that's having a potential impact on the delivery of electricity, that's something local jurisdictions need to keep in mind as they go about planning, as well as utilities."

BGE said it increased outlays for tree trimming and right-of-way maintenance since the late 1990s, spending, an average of $15 million per year. BGE said it expects to spend $19.1 million this year.

Still, BGE says it gets complaints from communities when it removes trees in rights of way.

"We've gotten adverse community reaction to clearing those rights of way," DeFontes said, noting that during Isabel, BGE lost none of its transmission lines in cleared rights of way.

"The design of the system is sound, if the trees don't fall and knock the equipment down."

In its report, BGE said 459,176 - 58 percent - of the 790,000 outages were caused by downed trees or fallen tree limbs.

In its report, Potomac Electric Power Co. said that three weeks after completing restoration was insufficient time to fully review its performance in the face of such a severe storm, which knocked out power to about three-fourths of its 720,000 customers. Pepco said it is continuing its assessment. But it found that its outage management system failed to work as intended,

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