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Will BGE remember the lessons of Irene?

One unhappy customer's list of things the utility needs to improve

By Walter Weinstein

6:00 AM EDT, September 26, 2011

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One reason people choose to live in Maryland is the absence of the kinds of natural catastrophes that plague so many other locales. Here, we have little to fear from Japanese-style tsunamis, Midwest-style tornadoes or (the recent tremor notwithstanding) California-style earthquakes. So BGE should never have posted a "service closed for about five days" sign afterHurricane Irene.

We have never had the option of connecting our home to natural gas, public water or sewage, so we are totally dependent on electricity for daily necessities. At age 77, I am retired. We no longer enjoy roughing it. The only alternative for everyone in our situation is to spend precious retirement dollars to buy, install and maintain backup power.

No one tallies the public's cost for discarded perishable food, living in dangerously high or low temperatures, and the grinding stress of seeking creative ways to cope with using tepid stored water for hygiene, plumbing and nourishment.

With a Constellation merger seemingly imminent, will we forget Irene? BGE/Constellation has no real competition, and there seems no lack of funds in their government-regulated revenue coffers. These factors sow the seeds for their failure of responsibility and their lack of effective sensitivity to our needs.

Our home has had innumerable shorter outages in recent times, mostly caused by trees. Electric lines to our home are underground for blocks, then fed by overhead wires running for miles, immediately next to heavily wooded main roads. Along one such 1-mile stretch — one shown as not planned for trimming in May, June or July on BGE's online tree trimming schedule — I saw at least 10 large trees downed on wires by Irene for four days or more.

A 10th-grader could decide to fix the lines serving the most people first. But a professional would find ways to include in their priority hierarchy customers whose extended electric loss threatens basic health (for example, breathing); the handicapped and elderly who cannot fend for themselves readily in temperature extremes; and a host of others who might have a valid claim on a faster fix.

Senior executives remained anonymous and faceless behind their PR person throughout Irene. She could say little more than "we're really trying our best," a mantra spoken on the radio for days.

In contrast, along the Eastern Shore's miles of tall pines (where Irene is now officially evaluated as having been more damaging than in Baltimore County, where we live), Delmarva Power was able to restore all service we know of in about 48 hours. The company even called each reporting customer to say the power was back on shortly thereafter. BGE advised us repeatedly on our battery-operated radio to look on the web for updates. Of course, the outage had taken out even our wireless Internet service. Wow, thanks. Even worse, BGE advised customers to call a number that told callers, after several rounds of menu choices, number crunching and holds, to call the number we had just called.

It is not comforting to see massed BGE trucks and those from afar when they just await instructions for hours, as reported by one team leader who said his supervisor's phone did not pick up all day as he tried repeatedly to be directed to work.

The Public Service Commission and state legislators should address all of the politics and connections required for effective planning and preventive steps to avoid another BGE/Irene Effect by requiring BGE to invest in:

•more redundancy of key fixed and mobile equipment;

•burying more key power lines;

•more continuous tree trimming near main lines (it seems utility easements give BGE the unfettered right to do so as necessary — planting additional new seedlings near any felled trees might help);

•continuous assessment before emergencies of how many crews with chain saws and heavy equipment would be needed for line repair caused by presently untrimmed trees;

•sufficient contracted/paid backups on call from other states for immediate response when needed;

•enough people trained for quick post-damage assessment of all main lines within less than six hours of outages, so the redundant and on-call resources can be at work within six hours of safe conditions;

•scheduled, documented and evaluated dry runs along main lines;

•real-world life experience, like having top BGE officials move in with and help the last customer who will be back up and who is over 65, sharing their coffee (fetched from a place with power).

As suggested by the last item on this list, the root of the problem is not linemen, technology, engineering, economics, luck or magic. It is BGE leadership's ineffective plans for managing emergencies and preventing their worst effects. Are they inept, unwilling — or both?

Specific improvements should be mandated with urgency, even if they reduce net income and executive compensation for a time.

Walter Weinstein, a retired medical services manager, lives in Owings Mills. His email is walterweinstein34@gmail.com.