BGE seeking to improve storm-response system

Better coordination of out-of-state crews among needs, utility says

December 17, 2003|By Lorraine Mirabella | Lorraine Mirabella,SUN STAFF

Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. is working to improve the way it responds to major storms and emergencies, which would cut down on the amount of time customers are left without power, company officials told the Maryland Public Service Commission yesterday.

During the final day of hearings on utilities' handling of the widespread outages caused by Tropical Storm Isabel, the state's largest utility told the commission that it has found several areas in need of improvement, many of them centering on the logistics of coordinating out-of-state crews called in to help.

In the event of another storm of Isabel's magnitude, BGE would change the way it deals with out-of-state crews, said Kenneth W. DeFontes Jr., vice president of electric distribution and transmission: beef up support staffing at staging areas; improve the assignment of guides; and find more efficient ways to house, feed and assign work to the hundreds of out-of-state workers.

DeFontes said the utility made its most aggressive storm preparations ever for the storm that cut off power to 70 percent of BGE's 1.1 million customers, an effort that he said was largely successful because of improvements in the outage-management system made after Tropical Storm Floyd in 1999 and the pre-mobilization of about 3,100 external crews. The utility said it spent $81 million on the restoration work.

The Office of People's Counsel, which represents residential utility customers, said BGE has improved its ability to handle a large volume of calls, with consumers getting busy signals for 21 minutes, as opposed to 48 hours of busy signals during Hurricane Floyd.

Commissioners said the public appeared more satisfied with BGE's restoration efforts than with the response by Potomac Electric Power Co., which reported problems with its automated outage-management system.

"It's a look at a tale of two cities," said Commissioner J. Joseph Curran III. "The response [from consumers] was different in Pepco territory. There was a disparity."

Still, said Commissioner Harold D. Williams, "there were many people in BGE territory who were not satisfied. Customers had problems with calling in and were told, `We will be in your area tomorrow or the next day' and the service was not restored. People are understanding of what's going on, but if individuals have some idea [of when to expect power] they can plan."

DeFontes said the utility accurately predicted how long it would take to restore all power and that the automated system told consumers when their areas were scheduled for work. But utilities, including BGE, are still unable to pinpoint precisely when power will be restored to specific areas.

The PSC can issue recommendations or orders about preparing for future storms but has no set timetable for doing so.

After the hearings, which also included testimony yesterday from Pepco, and its sister company, Conectiv, Williams said he favors having the utilities form a working group to find ways to restore power more efficiently.

The PSC staff called for the formation of several working groups, including one to explore how to pay for burying some power lines, another to select the pieces of the system to place underground and another to identify best practices of outage restoration, such as how to coordinate information with local emergency management agencies.

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