By Kevin Rector, The Baltimore Sun
1:45 PM EDT, July 20, 2013
When Michelle and Matthew Gorra moved to Upper Fells Point four years ago, they saw it not only as an investment in Baltimore's revival but in their own future.
Michelle Gorra, a 36-year-old pediatrician, thought hard about that future last week as she drove in circles around the neighborhood. The area had lost power, and the car was the only place she could find for her two young children to nap in air-conditioned peace.
"Young couples without children renovate, buy, move in, live three to five years, have children, get frustrated with the infrastructure and everything surrounding the investment they've made, and they move out," she said. "That's happened with multiple sets of our friends, and it will eventually happen with us."
Residents in some of Baltimore's trendiest neighborhoods, left without electricity for days as heat indexes approached 110 degrees, can expect more of the same in August.
Officials at Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. say they are working to address service problems in Fells Point, Canton and other areas. They say the outages are the result of the resurgence of those neighborhoods, where an aging electrical system is struggling to meet the energy demands of hundreds of new and renovated homes — many equipped with the latest technology — and that the rapid growth is far outpacing the ability of the utility to make improvements.
"The equipment is having trouble keeping up," said BGE spokeswoman Rachael Lighty. "Especially in the extreme heat, especially because the load has increased so much in the last few years."
City Councilman James Kraft is calling on BGE to speed upgrades to the area, a rare island of growth in the city.
"People want to live here. People are moving here," Kraft said. "But we've just got to get these things fixed, and we've got to be able to get them fixed more quickly and reduce the inconvenience for people in the meantime."
The outages are the most recent symptom of growth getting ahead of planning in the neighborhoods east of the Inner Harbor. In crowded Canton, residents and city officials are arguing over the best way to maximize parking. In Butcher's Hill, some homes have been on temporary water connections for months as the Department of Public Works labors to upgrade an aging water main system.
The neighborhoods are among those most desired by young professionals. Canton grew from 3,573 housing units in 2000 to 4,013 units in 2010, according to statistics kept by the Jacob France Institute at the University of Baltimore, and the vacancy rate dipped below 1 percent.
Fells Point grew from 3,455 units to 4,058 during the same period. Patterson Park saw only a slight increase in new homes, but its vacancy rate fell from 9.7 percent to 5.3 percent. In Highlandtown, vacants dropped from 3.2 percent to 1 percent.
Home sales have also been strong, spurring renovations. Sales in Canton increased by 40 percent from 2011 to 2012. Sales in Fells Point rose 18 percent.
Flat-screen televisions, state-of-the-art computers and energy-eating central air conditioning are taxing a system built for blue-collar families living in pre-digital-age rowhouses.
Darryl Jurkiewicz, president of the Canton Community Association, has lived his whole life in the neighborhood.
"When I was growing up, there were a lot of families with a lot of kids," he said. "But now there are mostly young professionals, empty nesters and a lot of adults, and with that comes more [electricity] usage."
BGE officials say homeowners are replacing the old 50-ampere panels that formerly served houses with 200-amp panels, essentially quadrupling the amount of electricity that can be demanded per home.
Similar energy challenges and worse affect areas of the city where the population is contracting. But the tension surrounding the problems in Southeast Baltimore has been exacerbated by a sense among homeowners there that their investment in the city isn't being valued — or matched. They say the improvements they have made to their homes are helping to attract new residents, just as the city wants, but the infrastructure around them is crumbling.
"It is frustrating to look at the map of the city of Baltimore and see that the only area of problems right now with power supply is the only area where there has been a large amount of gentrification," said Dr. Keith W. Pratz, 37, an oncologist at Johns Hopkins Hospital who lives in Canton.
BGE officials say they are working aggressively to upgrade the system. Lighty says the utility tracks population growth and new areas of demand, and replaces feeder lines whenever it can, a process set to continue as part of a multibillion-dollar investment strategy to be rolled out across the company's territory in the next several years.
"While it may feel to customers that investments are reactionary, it's definitely a balance between proactive and reactive," Lighty said. "There are things we are doing proactively to enhance their reliability even if they're not seeing it."
Still, addressing service problems in the neighborhood is "going to be an ongoing process," she said. "Things change so quickly. We're working as hard as we can to continue to invest in our infrastructure."
Repair efforts are complicated by access problems in some alleys, ductwork that limits the size of new cables and other limitations in the tightly built, older neighborhoods, Lighty said. It is "much easier to install new electrical infrastructure in a new development than retrofit an existing installation."
As heat that peaked in the 90s last week forced air-conditioning units and refrigerators in more houses than ever to full power, officials said, cables serving the area became so overheated that some melted. Several times when electricity was restored, a surge of demand by air-conditioning units and appliances all restarting at the same time knocked out power again.
BGE crews began installing temporary overhead lines Wednesday to ease the draw on the neighborhoods' underground lines. Lighty said that approach might continue as engineers seek longer-term solutions, such as installing thicker cables that can handle higher loads and more intense heat.
The utility is also installing smart meters across its territory, with the goal of completing the transition by the end of next year. Michael Garzon, BGE's supervisor of customer reliability, said the meters will enable the company to collect more-accurate, real-time usage data that will help engineers identify areas where demand has grown over time.
Garzon said the meters will also help BGE see where newly renovated homes are drawing more power when homeowners and private electricians haven't informed the utility. Homeowners will still be responsible for reporting renovations to BGE, Garzon said, but the meters might help detect those that slip through the cracks.
Kraft said he is also considering ways to get better information about renovations to the power company.
Residents said they hope something changes.
"You drive home from work and you are clenching the steering wheel wondering if you're going to have power, going to be able to cook dinner or even sleep in your house," said Jeff Hossfield, a 32-year-old engineer who lives in Fells Point.
"I recognize that, certainly, the infrastructure in the city is extremely old and stuff does happen," he said. "But when there is a repeated issue or where it becomes so commonplace, there's clearly a need for more attention for infrastructure upgrades to resolve the issue.
"It just seems to get more and more unreliable, which makes it more frustrating."
Copyright © 2013, The Baltimore Sun