After two massive, widespread, multi-day power outages in less than a year and thousands of complaints from angry customers left in the dark, literally and figuratively, it can now safely be said that Baltimore Gas & Electric Co. gets it. Company officials testified before the Public Service Commission last week that they are strategically hardening the system and asking the big questions about what it would take to redesign the entire grid to promote reliability. And in the meantime, they are tackling some of the communications issues that frustrated elected officials and customers alike during the aftermath of this summer's derecho storm.
The question now is whether customers get what, exactly, that means.
At last week's PSC hearing, commissioners focused their questions on what it would take to restore power within 24 hours after a major storm, and the answer to that, as BGE CEO Kenneth W. DeFontes Jr. suggested, is to have fewer customers lose power in the first place. More precisely, the answer is for crews to have fewer individual jobs to tackle after a storm — sometimes fixing a line snapped by a fallen tree restores power to 1,000 customers, sometimes to just one.
What BGE is doing right now is to find ways to improve service in the communities and neighborhoods that have posed some of the biggest difficulties in terms of the number of customers left without electricity after the recent major storms and in terms of the time needed to restore power. In some cases, that means burying power lines underground; in others, it means more aggressive tree trimming. Company officials say they began some of that work after Hurricane Irene in August 2011 but that it often wasn't complete before the derecho hit on June 29. That work continues and has evolved based on the company's post-derecho experience.
Meanwhile, BGE officials say they will work with local governments in the future to provide detailed information about which customers have lost power. Six county executives and Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake complained after the derecho that the company was unable or unwilling to provide data so that local emergency and social services personnel could check on those without power. BGE officials had been worried about privacy issues, but they say they are now committed to working out a protocol for how to provide that information and how it can be used. An order from the governor or the PSC dealing with those questions would likely facilitate the process.
And BGE is working to bring its online outage maps into the 21st century so they provide more detailed information about which areas are without power, why, and how long it is likely to take to restore service. By the end of the year, the company will have a basic website for mobile devices, and it plans to build in more functionality as time goes on.
All of that should ameliorate the problems the community experienced post-Irene and post-derecho up to a point. But it also underscores the difficult questions we face if we want to make universal reliability a priority. Even the targeted efforts at burying power lines that BGE is now undertaking are showing the logistical difficulties inherent in a more comprehensive solution. In some cases, entire undergrounding projects have been stalled by an individual homeowner who refuses to allow a right-of-way for the buried cables, a situation that can pit neighbor against neighbor. Likewise, there can be disputes about whose property the transformer boxes and switches go on.
And then there's the question of how we pay for this. As much as customers may wish that BGE could be forced to pay for all of these upgrades out of its profits — or, better yet, those of its corporate parent — that's not the way it works. Under our system for regulating utilities, a company like BGE is guaranteed a small but consistent rate of return for delivering electricity to our homes. If the company makes what state regulators agree are prudent upgrades to the system — whether it's smart meters or burying power lines — BGE is allowed to recover those costs from its customers.
That raises a lot more questions about fairness. Some people can afford to pay a bit more every month to ensure more reliable service, but some can't. Those who live in neighborhoods where the lines are already buried, or who for whatever reason have not experienced a major outage, may not think it's fair that they should have to pay more.
Gov. Martin O'Malley did the right thing to charge his chief energy advisor with studying these and other issues related to electric reliability, and we urge him to use the product of that effort as the basis for a statewide conversation about utility policy. Ultimately, this is a question that may need to be decided by the General Assembly. But the good news is this: BGE officials, who initially came across as defensive about their performance and dismissive of calls to overhaul the system, are now ready and willing participants in the discussion.