BGE says it has improved PeakRewards

Baltimore Gas & Electric Co. says it has taken several steps to improve performance after angering PeakRewards customers when air conditioners were cycled off for up to nine hours during a scorching day in July.

BGE, which is scheduled to explain its performance before the Maryland Public Service Commission this month, says it has improved training for call center operators, upgraded its technology and implemented better communication tools.

The utility outlined the improvements in a report it submitted this week to the commission, which will evaluate PeakRewards and other utilities' energy-saving programs in light of the incident.

BGE began a review of PeakRewards after extreme heat on July 22 prompted the region's electricity grid operator to declare an "emergency event" for the utility. That meant customers who signed up for the program — which eases energy consumption when demand spikes and saves money for participants — saw their air conditioners operate at 50 percent capacity, 25 percent or not at all.

Customers asked why air conditioners were cycled off for so long. and criticized BGE's communications. Some had trouble getting through to the utility's customer service line. Others wondered why they couldn't override the temporary shutdown.

In the aftermath, thousands of customers dropped out of the voluntary program or modified their participation. More than 400,000 customers remain enrolled.

In the report, BGE details the problems PeakRewards faced on July 22, including jammed radio signals and overwhelmed customer-service phone lines.

The utility — which started cycling air conditioners about 11 a.m. that day — had planned to resume normal operations by 6:46 p.m., about an hour after the emergency event was lifted.

But radio signals sent to PeakRewards thermostats and switches were jammed because of a system overload. As a result, most customers didn't see their air conditioners return to normal until between 7:03 p.m. and 7:52 p.m., according to the report.

BGE said it made improvements to the signal system, including increasing its capacity to reduce congestion. The utility said it plans to reconfigure the system so that commands can be prioritized.

The utility said it has taken steps to improve communication with customers, including developing a messaging system to inform customers of a possible activation and conducting a survey to understand customer reaction to the July 22 activation.

"We need to ensure that our communication with them is ongoing and that on days when activation occurs that we manage them in appropriate ways to ensure overall positive execution," said Jeannette M. Mills, chief customer officer for BGE.

The utility says it added additional phone lines at one call center operated by a contractor. Customers received busy signals when they called on July 22.

In addition, the utility said it plans to provide refresher training twice a year to representatives at the BGE-owned call center.

BGE also plans to hold annual activation drills.

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