Each year in Arundel on the Bay, the neighborhood's power goes out five, six or seven times, leaving residents in the dark with refrigerators of spoiling food and without water, since their well pumps run on electricity.
"There's a part of me that's really incredulous," resident Tim Hamilton said this week, unloading years of simmering frustration during a meeting with Baltimore Gas and Electric Co.'s supervisor of reliability. "I've never lived in a place where people buy generators like they live in a Third World country. And now there's talk of a surcharge?"
While the debate over how to improve systemwide reliability unfolds with Gov. Martin O'Malley's task force, state legislators and the Public Service Commission, ground zero is in places like Marc Apter's living room. Last week, the task force suggested a $1 to $2 monthly fee to finance improvements to the electrical grid. This week, a handful of residents from Arundel on the Bay sat around Apter's oblong table, their frustration evident as they and their state senator demanded to know how the company would help them.
"All the way around, it seems like my only option is to fill my crawl space with batteries," said resident Heath Nielsen, who installed solar panels only to discover that because they're tied to the electrical grid, they go out when the power does.
"You're asking us right now to trust you," resident David Delia told the BGE representatives. "We can't. To say it is adversarial is to be kind."
Mike Garzon, BGE's supervisor of customer reliability, listened to their complaints. He explained his solution and said that the community's waterfront views and leafy tree canopy bring the complication of high winds and falling limbs. As he's attended these community meetings across the service area, Garzon has come to understand the backlash. Last summer's derecho storm, which knocked out power to 762,000 BGE customers, some for as long as eight days, unleashed anger about the reliability of the power grid.
"For some of them, it was the straw that broke the camel's back," Garzon said.
The outages in Arundel on the Bay, however, were too numerous for company standards, BGE spokesman Rob Gould said. The neighborhood had begun its complaints in earnest more than 18 months ago.
"The good news is, honestly, we welcome that dialogue," Gould said. "We want to enhance reliability. Part of it is an education process. Part of what customers get most frustrated about are related to a lack of understanding of how the system works."
The grass-roots attempt to improve reliability may work on a neighborhood-by-neighborhood basis, said Paula M. Carmody, People's Counsel for the state of Maryland, whose office represents state utilities consumers. But it won't solve the larger, systemic problems being debated by the state's top officials.
"You can get attention and you can get a focus on these very localized issues," Carmody said. "Replicating that across the entire system? If everyone was doing that at one time, you would have this issue of 'Where do we go first?'"
Last week, Garzon told the Arundel on the Bay group about the company's plans to put a heftier transmission line in the neighborhood that can better withstand wind. He told them the company's new smart meters will also make it easier to pinpoint outages instantly instead of relying on customer complaints.
He mentioned other ideas, such as installing a dummy pole where an osprey could build a nest instead of building on a live pole, where it could disrupt power. He also reminded residents of the controversy about cutting trees, which some residents would rather have left untouched.
But Garzon said creating all the big-picture changes the neighbors want — new substations and buried electrical lines — is beyond his control.
"All those things are sitting at the task force level," he said.
State Sen. John Astle quietly listened from a window seat. He had helped arrange the meeting, as he plans to do for another community in Edgewater where tensions about electrical reliability have boiled over.
"I think what happens sometimes is communities don't feel that the company is being responsive," Astle said in an interview.
"This sort of really cuts both ways. On the one hand, we want the company to be responsive to the outages and doing the tree trimming. On the other hand, we want to make sure that the community knows this needs to be done."
At Arundel on the Bay, residents suggested BGE release the names of neighbors who resisted tree-trimming efforts so the community association could apply peer pressure — politely, they promised.