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The Baltimore Sun

Font Hill residents upset with BGE over chronic power issues

There have always been power blips in Font Hill, not to mention sporadic, hours-long outages.

Residents of the Ellicott City neighborhood have generally just huffed in frustration and went about their business.

Then, in August, Hurricane Irene brought an eight-day power outage to 26 homes, which was a new record. Residents fumed as the hours in the dark stacked up, and began voicing their anger about the longstanding unreliability of their power.

The extended outage, which scared some residents who use electric-powered medical equipment, has since prompted involvement from local representatives, as well as promises from Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. officials that steps are being taken to resolve the issues that are exposing the neighborhood to so many power problems.

At a meeting with residents on Nov. 16, BGE officials discussed an assessment of the local power circuit they'd completed after being contacted by Howard County Councilwoman Courtney Watson, an Ellicott City Democrat, and West Friendship Republican Sen. Allan Kittleman, among others.

They've since identified a three-step approach of trimming back problematic tree branches, updating fuse equipment and improving the interconnectivity of the local infrastructure in order to decrease blips and speed recovery from outages.

Still, widespread frustration among residents remains.

A matter of public safety

The meeting Nov. 16 was reportedly heated. And while the lights in Font Hill are on, blips have continued, and residents still feel they've been left in the dark, they said.

"I don't feel any better about any of this problem than I did at the beginning of the meeting," said David Rubin, a resident of Grosvenor Drive for the last 20 years.

Rubin suffers from sleep apnea so severe that it briefly stops his breathing more than 80 times an hour when he's lying down, so he requires an electric machine to help him breathe at night, he said. During the eight-day outage after Irene, he used up his back-up battery quickly, but couldn't leave his three chihuahuas behind to go to the hospital, he said.

"I went six nights in a row without sleeping," he said. "I was gagging all night long. I developed an infection. I could have died. I had to go on antibiotics."

The entire experience helped bring the issue to a head for Rubin's neighbor, Jim Mundy.

"They have the power, literally and figuratively," Mundy said of BGE. "They have the power to save people's lives. And, they have the power to say, 'No,' and they are."

Mundy, whose house was the first to be built on Grosvenor back in 1986, said the power issues have been occurring since he moved in, but he now considers them a public safety concern.

He remembers looking out his window in early September, during the Irene outage, and seeing some of his neighbors wandering around — an eerie experience.

"When I saw people roaming the streets, it was like 'Night of the Zombies,' " he said. "People looking for BGE trucks. I thought, 'What are you going to do, attack these guys?'"

Sensing and sharing the frustration of his neighbors, and hoping to avoid a confrontation with BGE workers, Mundy called Watson, the Ellicott City neighborhood's representative on the county council, to ask for help.

Watson, as it turns out, had already been to the neighborhood in recent days, along with Kittleman and county firefighters, to share information with residents about available county services and to remind them of safety precautions to take with gas-powered generators.

"That's really when it came to my attention, (Kittleman's) attention, that there had been consistent problems with Font Hill," Watson said.

Watson pushed for answers from BGE, and the assessment was begun.

Trimming and updating

Officials with BGE said the assessment, which included data collection and analysis as well as inspections, found that a majority of the outages and blips in the area are due to lines coming in contact with trees.

Because of that, Font Hill was moved to the front of the company's trimming schedule for 2012. While BGE has already removed one particular tree that was found to be causing a lot of problems, they will begin a more thorough trimming process in May, said Michael Garzon, BGE's supervisor of customer reliability support.

Second, BGE plans to start replacing older fuses in the Font Hill area with more modern "smart fuses" that use newer technology to reset themselves after momentary contact with a falling branch, for instance, instead of requiring an on-scene crew to fix the problem.

The technology was not available when the original fuses were installed, Garzon said, and the new fuses can't be installed everywhere for technical reasons, he said.

Still, switching out fuses in key problem areas will make a big difference, he said. He couldn't provide a timeline for when the changes would be implemented.

Last, BGE is assessing how to create another "tie" between the circuit covering Font Hill and a separate, adjacent circuit, Garzon said.

That tie will decrease the Font Hill neighborhood's isolation on the grid, allowing the homes there to be repowered during an outage through an alternative connection if a problem occurs with their main connection to the substation, Garzon said.

Garzon said the circuit that Font Hill is on already has a couple ties to adjacent circuits, but an additional one will boost recovery time during outages.

Creating an extra tie will require new infrastructure to be installed, likely including new lines along Old Annapolis Road, Garzon said, and he again could not provide a timeline for the work.

"At this time we're still in the scope and design phase," he said.

A similar effort was successfully made in the Dunloggin neighborhood, where service reliability improved, he said.

Michael Fowler, BGE's manager of public affairs, said the cost of the work would not be charged to Font Hill residents. Rather, like all BGE service costs, it will be "socialized across the system," or spread company wide.

Frustration with service

While residents said they are happy attention is finally being paid to the chronic power problems in their area, they are skeptical and critical of BGE's response and its ability to make good on its promises.

One of the problems, expressed by both residents and BGE officials, is that the brief blips of power that leave digital clocks blinking in Font Hill homes aren't necessarily detectable by the utility company's system, leaving confusion on both ends.

Garzon said BGE is "very reliant on (residents) calling in, especially when they have outages, to help log that in the system as an outage."

But Megan Roth, who's lived on Windflower Drive for eight years, said the last three times she's called to report a blip, she's gotten the same response.

"They say, 'There are no problems in Font Hill,' " she said. "…It's a huge frustration."

Mundy said BGE officials told him that four trees were causing a lot of the problems, and he can't understand why BGE can't break from its four-year trimming cycle to check on those trees and the rest of the Font Hill neighborhood more regularly.

Rubin said BGE has hidden behind the lack of a law in Maryland giving them the right to clear away substantial foliage without residents' consent.

Garzon said that was an issue, one that makes working together with residents all the more important.

"There's always the possibility that customers will be against some of the trimming or some of the work we're trying to do," he said. "And that can have a reliability impact on the customers downstream from them."

Stuart Teeters, a resident of Windflower Drive for 35 years, said the problems increased under Constellation Energy, BGE's parent company, and he worries more problems will occur under Constellation's proposed merger with Exelon.

"They used to really maintain the power lines, but then Constellation Energy took them over," Teeters said of BGE. "We rarely ever, ever lost power, and now it's getting to be a regular occurrence."

Fowler said that "regardless of whether that merger occurs or not, BGE will continue to be locally owned, locally operated," and that the transition would be "seamless" for customers.

"We are literally tied to the ground, so we have to be locally operated," Fowler said.

Mundy said whoever the owner, he expects problems to continue under the powerful utility company.

"Their prices are monitored, but the way they do business isn't," he said.

Kittleman and Watson both said they will be following up with BGE to ensure the promises are kept and improvements are made.

"I just want to make sure the residents are provided with as much information as possible," Kittleman said, "so, basically, they can have some predictability in their lives, to understand that there's going to be an end to this problem."

Said Watson: "I plan to monitor the plan and make sure that they are doing what they said they will do. We have to hold them accountable."

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