Regulation, bill aim to reduce power outages

Complaints about outages in storms and fair weather prompt action

February 13, 2011|By Liz F. Kay, The Baltimore Sun

During last month's most severe storm, a snow-laden branch connected with power lines and ignited outside Edward Loomis' Ten Hills home. That fire was quickly extinguished, but he wasn't so lucky in 2005 when a limb took down power lines and started a fire that damaged his garage.

Karen Segall and her family suffered through years of regular, prolonged power outages before paying $25,000 to install a generator at their Stevenson home last fall. That powered their home when the lights went out last month.

The January snowstorm caused hundreds of thousands of power outages. For some Maryland residents the outages stretched for days after snow stopped falling, while others say frequent service disruptions have become routine, whether the forecast calls for strong winds or blue skies. And some customers say that requests for preventive maintenance go unheeded or complain of poor customer service.

The situation has prompted stern rebukes from politicians and calls for new reliability standards for utilities. Gov. Martin O'Malley and state lawmakers proposed such legislation this month. They want to impose fines for long delays before restoring power and for poor communication about restoration efforts — and to send that money back to affected ratepayers.

"We have to have electric companies that make required investments in their infrastructure so we can provide electric service to their people," said Del. Brian Feldman, a Montgomery County Democrat and bill sponsor.

While much of the ire over outages has been directed at Pepco Holdings Inc., which powers homes in the Washington suburbs, Baltimore Gas & Electric Co. and other utilities also would be held to any new standards.

The Maryland Public Service Commission, the state's top energy regulator, has been investigating complaints about extended outages with Pepco since last summer and already has drafted regulations to hold it and other utilities accountable. The agency also is looking into whether utilities have a financial disincentive to make swift repairs.

During last month's storm, about 237,500 of 1.2 million BGE customers lost power for an average of 11 hours. That compares with a total of 142,000 outages during the February 2010 blizzards that lasted on average eight hours.

About 190,000 of 530,000 Pepco customers in Maryland lost power last month; data on length of outages weren't available. Pepco had 264,000 outages for an average 13.6 hours last year.

BGE spokesman Rob Gould said in a statement that the utility has been working to improve reliability by reducing outages and improving restoration efforts, and it wants to work with the O'Malley administration. The question is whether the costs will exceed the benefits, he said.

"The legislation raises substantial questions about what is achievable over time at a cost that customers are willing to pay," Gould said.

Pepco spokesman Clay Anderson said the company is awaiting final legislative language before passing judgment. Though, he added, "We're not in disagreement about standards."

At a General Assembly hearing on power outages last week, Pepco Chairman and CEO Joseph Rigby said: "At the root of our company is a strong desire to satisfy customers … we understand we have work to do to satisfy those expectations."

Utilities are now required to submit annual reports with statistics about service interruptions and the duration. They also must indicate which are the worst-hit geographic areas, what causes those outages and how they are working to improve performance.

In addition, if a major storm causes more than 100,000 customers to lose power, larger utilities must submit a report detailing their response. Those reports pertaining to last month's storm are due Friday.

In January, the PSC proposed revisions to existing regulations to set benchmarks for tree trimming; deadlines for responding to downed wires, outages and repeated service interruptions; and shorter telephone call response times. Violations could be subject to fines.

For example, if utilities fail to restore power to 90 percent of customers within 60 hours after major events, the proposed regulations would require them to explain how they would improve their performance. According to BGE, the utility met that standard during the most recent storm.

The proposed legislation being considered by the Assembly would direct the PSC to have the regulations in effect by July 2012. The bill also would credit any fines back to residential customers and bar utilities from raising rates to recover the cost of those penalties.

"At this point in time, there's a recognition we do need more definition and more meat on the bones to ensure that reliability is maintained," said Paula Carmody, head of the Maryland Office of People's Counsel, which represents residents on utility matters.

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