Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. struggled to muster the out-of-state crews from partner utilities needed to restore hundreds of thousands of power outages in the days after a deadly derecho struck June 29, the company said in a report to state energy regulators.
Utility officials said they had little time to gather the necessary manpower because the storm struck with little warning. They also expressed concern about customers' high expectations for rapid restoration.
The report, filed late Monday, kicks off the Maryland Public Service Commission's review of whether BGE's storm response was adequate.
Power outages peaked at 430,000 at 1 a.m. June 29, two hours after the storm battered Maryland with sustained 70 mph winds, according to the report, More than 762,000 BGE customers lost power at some point in the nine days after the storm. The average outage lasted 38 hours.
Irate customers and their advocates have criticized BGE for the length of storm cleanup and want to find a solution to prevent and shorten future outages.
"People expect a higher level of reliability than they expected 50 years ago because they need a higher level of reliability for our modern economy," said Sen. Jim Rosapepe, who has advocated burying of power lines and fining of utilities for poor reliability.
The report follows on the heels of BGE's unrelated request Friday to increase natural gas and electricity distribution charges, adding $11.80 per month to the bill of a median customer who receives both gas and electric service from the utility.
On June 29, BGE said in the report, weather forecasts it received from contractors WeatherBug and Climate Impact Co. gave little indication that thunderstorms coming from the Midwest would hold together and reach Maryland. As late as 9:30 p.m., an hour and a half before the intense storm reached Baltimore, there was a threat of "general thunderstorms," but even those appeared likely to break up.
At 10:26 p.m., the weather reports changed to warnings of widespread storms and increased threat levels in BGE's territory. The threat level was upgraded to "very high" at 10:44 p.m. A 66 mph wind gust was recorded at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport 18 minutes later.
Had there been more warning of the storm, as in the case of a hurricane, BGE officials would have worked to mobilize 1,000 workers in advance, the report said. BGE is a member of two shared-crew networks, one in the Mid-Atlantic and another in the Southeast.
Instead, the utility was several hundred workers short of what it needed to operate repair crews in four out of the first five days after the storm. The storm downed about 9,200 wires.
Each day multiple calls for more crews often went unheeded by its partners. BGE also called on a New York-based network, independent private contractors and other contractors that had worked with BGE but were not tied to another utility.
The utility was unable to muster 1,000 workers until July 2 because crews were busy in other areas hit by the storm.
A day later, the scope of the remaining work meant manpower requirements were raised to 1,500 workers, a level that wasn't reached until July 5, the report said.
BGE's difficulty gathering crews was not unique. Under the crew-sharing system for major storms, no utility gets its full request of assistance if there aren't enough available workers to go around, said Stephen J. Woerner, BGE's chief operating officer. In the Washington area, Pepco also requested a force of more than 1,000 workers.
Regardless of the challenges, BGE officials said in the report, with 1,000 fewer workers than used after Hurricane Irene last year, the utility restored a comparable number of outages in about the same amount of time. BGE restored 47 percent of outages within 36 hours and 84 percent within 4 days, according to the report.
Utility officials also expressed a desire for customers to temper their anger over outages.
Customers' anger was intense. BGE received 1.3 million calls, 6,100 e-mails and 11,000 mentions on social media from customers without power, according to the report.
"During the June Derecho restoration, it was once again apparent that there is a disconnect between customer expectations of what is a reasonable [restoration time] in the aftermath of a severe impact storm and the realities associated with restoring power under such conditions," utility officials wrote in the report. "BGE will continue to work to provide its customers with the best information possible about when service will be restored, recognizing that unforeseen operating challenges can extend or elongate individual [restoration times]."
Consumers' growing dependence on the Internet and other modern conveniences such as air conditioning has put utilities like BGE in a difficult position, said Mike Hyland, senior vice president for engineering services for the American Public Power Association. The association represents publicly owned utilities; BGE is not a member.
"The expectations of restoration are a lot different than they used to be," Hyland said. "The idea of being without power more than about 48 hours drives the average customer crazy, let alone a week."
One consumer advocate recognized the challenge of the massive storm cleanup job but defended customers' expectations.
"It's hard not to feel sympathy for them; they have a big job to do," Maryland PIRG State Advocate Jenny Levin said. "But I don't think consumers expectations are too high. … Even when they have had advance notice they have had a lackluster response."
Rosapepe, a Democrat who represents Prince George's and Anne Arundel counties, questioned why utilities weren't prepared for the storm, given that global climate change may be causing more extreme weather — a belief that Gov. Martin O'Malley and Public Service Commission Chairman Douglas Nazarian also recently expressed.
BGE doesn't have an official stance on climate change, Woerner said. However, the utility is eager to have a public discussion about severe weather, massive outages and the costs and benefits of potential solutions such as hiring more permanent line crews or burying some or all power lines, he said.
O'Malley set up a work group July 25 that will explore ways to improve electricity reliability in Maryland, and BGE officials welcomed the effort in the report.
"It's best in that public policy arena where it's done sort of as an open book, where we can get all the facts on the table," Woerner said.
Maryland Natural Resources Secretary John R. Griffin will also brief a U.S. Senate panel chaired by Sen. Ben Cardin on Wednesday, discussing what needs to be done to prepare for more severe weather brought on by climate change.
Maryland People's Counsel Paula Carmody, who advocates for utility customers before the PSC, said her office will form positions on utilities' storm responses and ways to improve them after an engineering consultant reviews storm reports from BGE and other utilities.
BGE customers will have the opportunity to air their concerns in public hearings across the Baltimore area Aug. 13-16 or in writing to the commission. Utility leaders will appear before the commission for hearings in September.