Power outage backlash

Even before the Public Service Commission has heard a single hour of testimony about the response by Pepco and Baltimore Gas & Electric Co. to the recent derecho storm that knocked out power to more than a million Marylanders, the verdict is in — at least from electric consumers and the politicians who have been hearing their complaints. Two state senators are proposing fines that would amount to more than $100 million for each of the companies, an idea that the governor finds intriguing. Baltimore's mayor and the state's county executives have complained that the utilities failed to give them useful information about what areas were without power, which might have helped them prevent some of the 20 deaths attributed to the recent heat wave. And one of the highest-ranking members of the state's congressional delegation issued a report finding that Pepco was much slower to restore power than the neighboring utility in Virginia and urging the PSC to reject its bid for a rate increase, among other measures.

Pepco and BGE deserve the chance to tell their side of the story, which they will do in mandatory post-storm reports to the PSC. The state's major utilities have largely defended their efforts by saying that the storm was unexpected and that they worked as quickly as possible to restore power under difficult conditions. But after the fourth massive, multi-day, weather-related power outage in the last three years, the PSC needs to do more than evaluate whether the utilities brought in enough crews to repair the damage. As Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger pointed out, the issue is not just what the utilities did after the electricity went out but what they can do to make sure it doesn't go out again.

As Mr. Ruppersberger noted, such outages seem to be forming a pattern. Hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses lost power during the massive snowstorms of the winter of 2009-2010. Nearly 1 million BGE and Pepco customers lost power after Hurricane Irene in 2011. After that storm, affected BGE customers lost electricity for an average of 37 hours and Pepco customers for 26 hours. The derecho knocked out power to almost 1.2 million customers between the two utilities.

The PSC needs to go beyond looking at the number of crews the utilities mustered and how fast they completed their work and instead consider the patterns of power loss after these storms and more mundane events. Are there homes or businesses that have repeatedly lost power in these storms? Are there segments of the electrical grid that are particularly susceptible to damage?

It may be unpractical and unnecessary to bury the entire power grid, but state Sens. Brian Frosh and James Rosapepe are right to suggest that fines levied against the utilities might be profitably used to bury or otherwise harden strategic sections. They are suggesting the companies be fined $250 per customer who was without power for more than 36 hours. It's too early to say whether such a large amount is appropriate. But considering how much it costs the utilities to recover from these storms — BGE spent more than $80 million on Irene cleanup — such fines and investments may ultimately pay dividends to customers in the form of lower rates and fewer losses from spoiled food and other expenses associated with extended power outages.

Finally, the PSC needs to pay significant attention to how the utilities communicate with customers and local utilities during massive power outages. In an age of social media and smartphones, the companies are using old and passive technology to provide updates on the status of their repairs. BGE customers had to call a toll-free number, listen to a lengthy message informing them that the company was dealing with a major outage event (no kidding) and wade through a menu to even find out whether there was anything new to report about their situation.

And when local officials attempted to get information about what houses, streets or even neighborhoods were still without power days after the storm, the utilities were either unable or unwilling to provide it. That's not acceptable. Local government officials are right to be concerned about the health and well-being of residents without power. It is a matter of public health. Some 20 people died as a result of the heat wave. It's impossible to know whether better information sharing might have prevented any of those deaths, but that's a chance the PSC should make sure we don't have to take in future storms.

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