State regulators question utilities about storm response

March 03, 2011|By Liz F. Kay, The Baltimore Sun

Executives from Maryland's two largest electric utilities defended the speed of their response to thousands of power outages caused by January's severe winter storm as they appeared before state regulators Thursday.

Joseph Rigby, chairman and CEO of Pepco Holdings Inc., told the Maryland Public Service Commission about the utility's reliability enhancement plan that is expected to cost more than $250 million over five years. The utility took about five days to restore power to more than 180,000 Maryland customers in January.

"I understand the inconvenience and hardship caused by the storm," Rigby said. "From the boardroom to the loading dock, we are focused on two core issues — the safe delivery of reliable power and improving customer service."

But commissioners indicated that their patience was waning with this most recent investigation into extended power outages. Thunderstorms last July left more than 323,000 customers in the Washington suburbs without power, some for as long as a week.

"This is just chronic," said PSC Chairman Douglas Nazarian.

Ratepayers submitted numerous complaints to the PSC about the most recent outages, as well as about their inability to reach Pepco's customer service line. In addition, an online interactive map that was supposed to provide estimated repair times was taken down because of concerns about accuracy.

More than 237,000 Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. customers lost power in the January storm — more than were affected during the twin snowstorms that hit Maryland in February 2010 — and power was restored to all in fewer than four days.

Regulators not only questioned utilities about faster restoration of service but also about keeping customers informed.

Because of dangerous conditions, BGE crews responded only to emergency situations during the storm, utility officials said. Once they determined the number of outages and the nature of the damage, they established an estimated time of repair for the entire system.

As crews were dispatched, they calculated a more specific repair time for individual communities, said Chris Burton, BGE's senior vice president for gas and electric operations and planning. Customers who called back were given an updated time, he said.

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