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O'Malley says utilities should explore burying some power lines

Gov. Martin O'Malley joined Tuesday in calling for Maryland's utilities to explore burying at least some of their overhead power lines in the wake of the freak storm that left hundreds of thousands of households in the dark last week and vulnerable to a killer heat wave.

Speaking to reporters while touring the Silver Spring offices of a "green" energy company, O'Malley said "we have to have a very honest discussion about the degree to which we might underground our utilities" following the devastating June 29 wind-storm that downed thousands of trees and knocked out power across the state.

While noting that the storm, known as a "derecho," hit the region with hurricane-like force without giving utilities much warning, O'Malley said he intends to speak with executives at Baltimore Gas & Electric Co. and Pepco and with the Public Service Commission about where and how to safeguard power lines from future storms.

"Clearly some other places have figured out how to underground portions of their grid in order to make it more resilient, and we need to do the same," he said while meeting with reporters in the offices of Clean Currents, which markets electricity generated by wind and solar facilities.

The governor said he'd been in touch with the chief executive of Pepco on Tuesday and intended to talk with BGE and PSC leaders as well about enhancing what he called the "resiliency" of the state's electric grid, including stepping up tree trimming near power lines to reduce the frequency and severity of storm-related outages.

He said residents "need to resist the understandable and natural desire to protect every possible tree from ever being trimmed back or cut." He noted that Pepco in particular has a backlog of tree trimming to do.

The governor also expressed concern about the number of nursing homes around the state that suffered without power. He said state regulations require they have backup power generators, but those either were not in place or failed to operate in the recent outage. He said he would be pressing for remedies there as well.

O'Malley's remarks came in the wake of calls by some legislators and others to make the state's utilities put particularly vulnerable portions of the electric grid underground.

State Sen. James C. Rosapepe, D-Prince George's, and other officials have urged the state Public Service Commission to require utilities to bury "critical" power lines. He and 28 other Washington area legislators wrote the commission urging it to deny the utility a $67 million rate increase because of the "unconscionably slow" restoration of electricity to its customers.

Utility spokesmen have warned that burying wires could cost billions of dollars. But O'Malley said that the costs, though steep, need to be weighed against the costs of more such outages to businesses and households, especially in light of scientists' warnings that storms are becoming more frequent and intense as the earth's climate changes.

And he said the derecho was a reminder of the need for Maryland to move ahead with developing cleaner renewable energy, such as the industrial-scale offshore wind turbines he's twice failed to convince state lawmakers to subsidize.

The governor said those forced to endure last week's heat wave without power are understandably frustrated and angry.

"Nothing has made people feel more unempowered than being without power for seven hot days," he said. Officials can and should act now to make the state's electric grid more reliable, the governor concluded, but longer term, people need to "connect the dots" between the disruption caused by such storms and the changes wrought on the planet's climate by human activities.

Tim.wheeler@baltsun.com

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