Consumer advocate seeks deeper inquiry into BGE storm response

Maryland's consumer advocate wants the state energy regulator to conduct a "more in-depth investigation" into Baltimore Gas and Electric Co.'s performance in the wake of Hurricane Irene.

The Office of People's Counsel, which represents consumers in utility matters, made the recommendation in a report filed Wednesday with the Public Service Commission, which is reviewing the response by BGE and other utilities to last month's storm. The PSC will hear from utilities in regulatory hearings starting Monday.

About 756,000 of BGE's 1.2 million customers lost electricity for up to eight days. That was more than twice the number of outages reported by Pepco, which had about 370,000 customers lose power, the People's Counsel said.

At the peak, more than 476,000 BGE customers were without power. Those customers were without electricity for 58 hours on average — the longest period among the state's utilities, according to the report.

People's Counsel Paula M. Carmody noted Wednesday that major storms such as Irene cause large numbers of outages and that it takes time to restore service "despite the efforts of dedicated utility crews."

"However, when we took a look at BGE's time to restore service, especially for customers who lost power at peak times, the numbers are pretty dramatic," she said. She said her office has had just one week to review newly released storm reports by BGE and other utilities. "We've asked the commission to open an investigation so that we can engage in a deeper investigation of the root causes."

BGE officials have called Irene a storm of "historic proportions" that caused extensive damage throughout its system, including trees and limbs on power lines.

In a report evaluating its performance, BGE said more than 6,000 linemen, tree trimmers and others, many from out of state, were involved in efforts to restore electricity. The utility identified needed improvements, including more accurate estimates of when customers' power would be restored and greater public awareness of the restoration process.

Many BGE customers criticized the utility's pace of power restoration and said its customer service phone line, intended to keep people informed about when repairs would be made, was inaccurate.

The People's Counsel report said BGE's phone center had difficulty keeping up with the number of calls. In particular, BGE representatives answered just 44.7 percent and 56.5 percent of calls within 60 seconds on Aug. 28 and 29, respectively, at the height of the storm. Pepco answered more than 98 percent of its calls in less than a minute on those days.

The People's Counsel recommended that BGE provide a plan to address the "communication failure."

Of the four recommendations on utility performance made in the report, three were focused solely on BGE. Singling out the company throughout the report, the People's Counsel called BGE's total number of customer interruption hours — 27.7 million — "remarkable" and said its storm report did not adequately explain why it took so long to restore power.

"We're perplexed by the OPC's position, given that the Public Service Commission is in the process of assessing not just our performance but that of the state's other utilities," BGE spokesman Rob Gould said.

Separately, BGE is revising its marketing materials for its PeakRewards energy-saving program to ensure that customers better understand how the program works, officials told the PSC.

At a hearing before the panel, BGE executives outlined improvements to the program after customers whose air conditioning was turned off for up to nine hours on a scorching day expressed anger.

The PSC is evaluating PeakRewards and other utilities' programs in light of the incident July 22, when extreme heat prompted the region's electricity grid operator to declare an "emergency event" for BGE.

BGE executives said the utility has improved training for call center operators, upgraded technology and implemented better communication tools.

PSC Chairman Douglas Nazarian said the commission remains committed to PeakRewards and other energy-saving programs, noting that July 22 represented the "first real test" during an emergency event, the first of its kind in the four-year history of the program.

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