State energy regulator questions BGE on Irene effort

Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. performed "very well" under difficult conditions to restore power to 756,000 customers who lost electricity during Hurricane Irene, the utility's chief executive officer told Maryland energy regulators Monday.

BGE President and CEO Kenneth W. DeFontes Jr. said the utility — which had 6,700 employees and out-of-state personnel involved in restoration efforts — returned power to nearly 80 percent of its affected customers within two days.

But some customers were without power for as long as eight days. BGE came under fire from customers and public officials for its pace of restoration and for its communications with customers on restoration times.

The Maryland Public Service Commission is reviewing the performance of BGE and other utilities after Hurricane Irene hit Maryland in late August.

Of the six utilities in the state, BGE suffered the most outages. Pepco, which serves Prince George's and Montgomery counties as well as the District of Columbia, experienced the second-largest number of outages, with about 379,000 customers losing power.

"I assure you that while we believe we performed well during this storm on the whole, there is always room for improvement," DeFontes said. "We are looking closely at all aspects of our performance to determine what worked well and what we can do differently during the next event."

DeFontes also said the storm cleanup costs could total $90 million once all the invoices come in. The utility at first estimated a total of $81 million.

The utility said it expected to pass on some of those costs in an electricity distribution rate increase, though DeFontes told the PSC that the company had not decided when it would request one.

Most of the questions from the PSC echoed the frustration of many customers, who complained that BGE had provided inaccurate estimated times of power restoration.

Public Service Commission Chairman Douglas Nazarian said customers without electricity faced another source of frustration when they were told power would be restored by a certain date — only to find themselves still without electricity when that day passed.

Noting that providing accurate restoration times has been a persistent and challenging issue for all utilities, Nazarian said, "We have to figure out structurally how to keep that frustration from happening."

The Public Service Commission's staff has recommended that the energy regulator convene a working group to evaluate and propose guidelines for utilities when they are establishing estimated times of power restoration.

Typically, within the first 24 hours of a storm's passing, BGE establishes a systemwide restoration time, a forecast of when the vast majority of customers' electricity will be restored, said Christopher Burton, BGE's senior vice president of gas and electric operations and planning.

For Irene, the forecast date was the Friday after the weekend the storm hit Maryland.

Once utility crews were out in the field, some customers were given revised estimated restoration times to reflect repairs to feeder cables serving large groups of households.

While BGE's process of determining estimated restoration times has been successful for most weather events, a storm of Irene's magnitude hampered the utility's ability to meet customers' expectations for individual restoration times, Burton said.

In some cases, crews faced more extensive damage than what was initially reported, causing repair jobs to take double or even triple the original estimated time, DeFontes said.

Utilities across the industry are grappling with whether to provide systemwide estimated time of restoration versus individual restoration times, DeFontes said.

Some commissioners told BGE that they were surprised to learn nursing homes were not on the top of the restoration priority list.

Commissioner Harold D. Williams told BGE executives that the utility should start considering nursing homes as a restoration priority because "people's lives are at stake."

BGE placed priorities on public safety, critical infrastructure such as hospitals and pumping stations, and main feeders that served the largest number of customers.

The Maryland Office of People's Counsel asked the PSC to conduct a separate inquiry into BGE's performance. People's Counsel Paula Carmody said Monday that a more in-depth review of why BGE sustained such long outages would be helpful.

On average, BGE customers lost 37 hours of power, more than other utilities' ratepayers.

"In saying that, I'm not prejudging the outcome," Carmody said in a brief interview.

The PSC expects to issue an order based on recommendations from its staff and the People's Counsel, but no date has been set.

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