Power company officials defend storm response

Despite hundreds of thousands without power, Pepco says performance was acceptable

August 17, 2010|By Joe Stephens and Aaron C. Davis, The Washington Post

A Pepco vice president told Maryland regulators Tuesday that the company was "not terribly disappointed" with its response to recent storms that left nearly a half million people in the dark, while another vice president disclosed that the utility ranked among the worst power providers in surveys of day-to-day reliability.

The disclosures came as anger mounted in suburban cul-de-sacs, shopping centers and the Maryland governor's mansion against the Washington region's largest power company. The criticism stemmed from what some said was only the latest in a series of outages during storms or sometimes on sunny days.

"Yes, there have been very severe thunderstorms, but in less severe storms we're also seeing more outages in the Pepco area than we did before," Gov. Martin O'Malley told reporters at a news conference outside the State House. "To pretend that this is all due to weather is not, I think, a responsible way to act."

Pepco executives defended their performance during daylong questioning in a packed Baltimore hearing room at the Maryland Public Utility Commission, fending off questions from at-times-disapproving commissioners.

"It's not going to be business as usual going forward," Commissioner Lawrence Brenner said. "We're going to come up with things to measure you by. And we're going to have to have consequences."

The executives repeatedly asserted that they had responded well to a challenging and unpredictable situation, but said they nonetheless planned to make improvements. They stressed that increasing reliability would increase costs, stopping short of saying they would seek a rate increase.

"We know it's been a very frustrating summer for our customers," said David Velazquez, Pepco's executive vice president for power delivery. "It's been a very frustrating summer for us as well. We responded properly."

If the company fell short, he said, it was in not communicating adequately with its customers, to let them know how long it would take to restore power, and to educate them about the daunting challenges facing its crews. Pepco officials said the company had learned lessons from the storms, and would respond by trimming trees, considering moving underground some stretches of power lines and rerouting some circuits. It could take four years to make overall improvements in the system, they said.

Commission Chairman Doug Nazarian said his office has been deluged with complaints, some comparing Pepco's service to that in third-world countries, others saying that their electricity failed whenever the wind kicked up. There is a widely held perception that Pepco is not prepared for storms and mobilizes slowly when they arrive, he said.

Commissioner Susanne Brogan asked Mike Sullivan, senior vice president of operations at Pepco, if he had misspoken when he suggested he was not disappointed by Pepco's response. Sullivan replied, "I think we did a reasonable job of restoring power. I'm not embarrassed by what we did."

Pepco officials said 90 percent of the recent outages were caused by falling limbs, most from trees on private property, where owners often deny access to trimming crews. The first and biggest of three recent storms, on July 25, broke with little warning, but the executives said they quickly activated crews and called in reinforcements from other companies.

"Is it physically possible to restore service to 300,000 customers in 24 hours? I'm not sure it is," Velazquez said.

Pepco officials said their company placed in the bottom 25 percent among companies ranked on two yardsticks designed to gauge reliability. On a third yardstick, Pepco recently rose from the third 25 percent to the second. The ratings do not include responses to major storms, instead focusing on day-to-day service.

The five-member commission, which regulates utilities and sets utility rates in the state, announced Thursday that it was launching an investigation into how Pepco responded during July and August storms.

With lengthy outages that have spoiled refrigerators full of food and frayed residents' nerves, Pepco has eclipsed the environment, education and even economic hardship as topic No. 1 for many Washington-area voters heading into next month's primary.

"I expect to hear from PTA leaders about education and from transit advocates about the environment, but these days everybody is talking about Pepco," Hucker said Del. Tom Hucker, a Montgomery County Democrat.

On Tuesday, O'Malley called in to morning radio programs and held a news conference to draw attention to the PSC investigation. O'Malley's office has noted repeatedly that the commission, which he appoints, began the probe only after he requested it.

O'Malley said that while weather and trees were factors in the recent outages, he believes Pepco could be doing more to limit problems. "I do believe another factor has to do with the investment in the infrastructure. ... We don't see these same sort of outages happening in other parts of our tiny state."

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