Hearings open on utilities' Isabel repairs

Pepco, Allegheny officials queried on maintenance

BGE is to testify today

Burying of lines advised

outages exceeded a week

December 16, 2003|By Lorraine Mirabella | Lorraine Mirabella,SUN STAFF

The Maryland Public Service Commission kicked off hearings yesterday into electric utilities' response to widespread power outages across the state during Tropical Storm Isabel, amid PSC staff's call for improvements in communications and outage management and for the burying of some power lines underground.

In the first day of the two-day hearing in Baltimore, commissioners questioned officials from two of the state's publicly held utilities, Potomac Electric Power Co. and Allegheny Power Inc., about spending on transmission system maintenance, tree trimming and pre-mobilization of repair crews. Isabel, one of the worst storms of its kind to hit the state in at least 50 years, left more than a million Marylanders without electricity, some for more than a week.

"Every one of the utilities should be able to take away significant lessons learned," commission Chairman Kenneth D. Schisler said yesterday after the daylong hearing that also included testimony from two of the state's electric co-ops, Montgomery County officials and one private citizen.

The utilities came in for widespread criticism for the time it took to restore power after the mid-September storm. The utilities have defended their performance, saying advance planning, improved technology and the assistance of hundreds of out-of-state crews helped them repair the widespread damage under extraordinary circumstances.

The utilities were required to file storm reports with the PSC in October assessing their performance, and the hearing is to give commissioners a chance to question company officials and hear from the public before issuing any orders.

In a report filed in response to the utilities' storm reports, the PSC's engineering staff recommended that a working group be formed to develop a way to bury portions of the electric system to protect it from storms.

The PSC staff has also made company-specific recommendations, including directing Pepco and its sister company, Conectiv, to improve their outage management system, increasing the amount of calls they can handle and information they can track during a severe storm. Pepco said yesterday that it has started working on such an upgrade.

It was also recommended that utilities work with their local emergency management officials to improve the distribution of dry ice, which ran short.

The state's biggest utility, Baltimore Gas and Electric Co., is scheduled to testify today. In its October report to the commission, BGE said that it turned in a "substantially improved" performance in responding to Isabel compared with that for Tropical Storm Floyd four years earlier, and spent more than $80 million to repair the damage.

Yesterday, Pepco President William J. Sim faced questioning regarding spending on maintenance, including tree trimming, since the state's electric-deregulation law was passed in 1999. Questioning was to continue today.

Three-fourths of Pepco's 720,000 customers, primarily in Montgomery and Prince George's counties and Washington, lost power during Isabel, some for more than a week. Downed power lines, knocked out by tree limbs and uprooted trees, caused most of the outages.

Commissioner J. Joseph "Max" Curran III asked Sim whether deregulation has caused the company to cut back on maintenance, including tree trimming.

"We've spent more money on transmission over the last five years," Sim responded. "Restructuring has nothing to do with restoration time."

Sim said the utility had installed a high-volume call-answering system, a new outage-management system and global positioning systems in its trucks, and called in out-of-state crews from Detroit before the storm hit, enabling the company to meet its goal of restoring nearly all customers' service eight days after the storm.

"Despite that, many of our customers were not satisfied," Sim said. "Any time you don't have power for more than 48 hours, patience wears thin."

He said the utility believes it can improve communication with customers during major storms to be able to offer more precise timing on when power for specific areas will be restored.

Pepco acknowledged in its October storm report that its outage-management system failed to work as intended.

A representative of Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan told the commission that it took more than 13 hours for Pepco to confirm receiving a report of downed trees and wires. The county's Public Safety Communications Center opened a storm center desk but had no real-time communication with Pepco to keep the utility and the county's Public Works crews informed of each other's calls and responses, said Scott Riley, an assistant administrative officer for the county.

Duncan is calling for Pepco, as well as BGE and Allegheny, to improve the way they get and respond to information on downed trees and wires from county public safety centers.

Ralph Jaffe, a BGE customer from Pikesville, told the commission that after the hurricane, "there weren't sufficient numbers of power crews on the streets. Until this is rectified, it will be business as usual. When people are without power for days, that is unacceptable."

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