Legislators grill utilities on outages caused by Isabel

Panel members ask whether tree-trimming was sufficient for storm

October 22, 2003|By Lorraine Mirabella | Lorraine Mirabella,SUN STAFF

State lawmakers plan to look into the tree-trimming practices of Maryland's utilities to see whether the companies are doing enough to prevent lengthy and widespread power outages during severe storms.

In a first step in reviewing the utilities' response to Tropical Storm Isabel, which left more than a million Marylanderswithout power, two legislative panels heard testimony about the outages yesterday from the power companies, including Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. and Potomac Electric Power Co.

Members of the Senate Finance and House Economic Matters committees said they thought the utility crews had done a good job under the circumstances in restoring power in about eight days.

But lawmakers questioned whether utilities had fallen short on the pruning of trees and other vegetation.

The legislators also questioned whether the utilities kept consumers well enough informed or promised more than they could deliver, particularly when it came to dry ice.

After the 2 1/2 -hour hearing, Del. Dereck E. Davis, the Prince George's County Democrat who chairs the House panel, said the utilities "were as forthright and direct as they could be at this point in time. But there are still some questions that need answering."

One crucial one, he said, involves programs to keep trees and other vegetation away from power lines.

Also testifying yesterday were representatives of Delmarva Power and Light, Conectiv Power Delivery and Allegheny Power.

The companies said most of the outages were caused by downed trees or tree limbs on privately owned property, not in the utilities' rights of way. Executives at BGE and Pepco also said that they often face community resistance to clearing trees in rights of way.

In coming weeks, committee members expect to work with the Public Service Commission and the Office of People's Counsel on the tree-trimming question, Davis said.

"My goal is to find out if the utilities are doing an adequate job with tree pruning and maintenance and if they're allocating appropriate resources to tree pruning and vegetation," Davis said.

Del. Ann Marie Doory, the Baltimore Democrat who is vice chair of the House committee, questioned BGE officials about how often the transmission lines are upgraded and maintained, and about the utility's responsibility to trim trees on private property.

She also questioned whether staffing cutbacks have left fewer technicians to maintain the lines and why some areas seem to suffer from outages more than others.

"It is our responsibility to trim the trees around the lines" in a four-year cycle, said Kenneth W. DeFontes Jr., BGE's vice president of electric distribution and transmission. BGE spends about $15 million a year on tree trimming and expects to spend $19 million this year, he said.

As for frequent outages, DeFontes said the utility files an annual report with the PSC on the worst-performing circuits and ways to improve them.

Del. Mary A. Conroy, a Prince George's Democrat who is a member of the House committee, sharply questioned BGE executives about their tree-trimming practices and maintenance of the substations. She said BGE workers showed up in her yard to trim trees for the first time in 17 years only after Isabel, when she and her neighbors lost power for 10 to 12 days.

"It is not acceptable for the people you serve, every time there is a disaster like this their power goes out," she said.

BGE's DeFontes told lawmakers that the utility had been preparing for the next big storm after Tropical Storm Floyd struck in 1999. The company spent millions of dollars on new technology and system upgrades, and called in out-of-state crews in advance of Isabel.

He said the improvements and an expenditure of $80.6 million for labor, equipment and materials enabled BGE to restore power to 790,000 people in eight days, more than twice the number of outages restored in the same time after the 1999 storm.

BGE has more than 1 million business and residential customers in Baltimore and Central Maryland

"The bottom line is, we spared no expense," DeFontes told the committee. "Our priority was to get restoration as fast as possible. We're pleased with our response to Hurricane Isabel. It was a well-planned and well-executed response."

Whether state officials make the same assessment remains to be seen. The PSC will hold hearings on the utilities' performance after the commission's technical staff makes recommendations after examining storm reports filed by the power companies Monday.

The Office of People's Counsel has hired two consultants to conduct in-depth financial reviews of utilities, which in part will examine spending on the maintenance of distribution lines over a 10-year period.

In testimony yesterday, officials of Allegheny Power, 113,000 of whose customers in Western Maryland lost power, said the company's review of its storm response has uncovered no specific problems.

Pepco, said it has found problems with its outage management system, which tracks customer calls.

Customers "became frustrated and angry when, in some cases, they were informed by a call center representative that their previous outage complaint was not in the system," said William J. Sim, president of Pepco. The calls were actually in the system, he said, but the processing and displaying of information were delayed because of the extremely high volume of calls.

"We are working to ensure that this problem does not happen in the future," he said.

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