Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. officials told state energy regulators Thursday that major changes to the electricity grid, including burying some power lines and more aggressively trimming trees, are needed to prevent long-term outages like the one that followed the June 29 derecho.

"A part of the solution has to be having less damage to repair," CEO Kenneth W. DeFontes Jr. said at a Maryland Public Service Commission hearing on utilities' response to the storm. "Undergrounding selectively has to be part of the solution."

Many power lines in newer communities around the state are underground, but some have discussed burying overhead lines in areas with many mature trees.

Commissioners also pressed the utility to provide more information to customers and emergency responders to help the region better weather future mass outages. BGE officials defended their actions, calling the cleanup efficient despite taking them and most of the state by surprise.

The commission is reviewing all utilities' repair efforts after the storm left more than 1 million Marylanders without power. In BGE's territory, 762,000 customers lost power for an average of 38 hours; many residents were without electricity for as many as seven or eight days.

If commissioners find a utility's response was inadequate, they can issue fines or other penalties.

While the hearing was based largely on storm reports the utilities prepared and on comments from a frustrated public, discussion during a segment of it focused more on the design of the power grid itself. Some politicians and customers have criticized utilities for not burying more or all of the power lines, something commission Chairman Douglas Nazarian noted in the hearing.

Commissioners and utility officials went back and forth on how to shorten the duration of major outage events in the future.

"The only way I can see to get to that is to have a very different delivery system," DeFontes said.

"Short of napalming every tree in the state and undergrounding every line, what does that look like?" Nazarian later asked.

"We don't have an answer to the question yet, but we are asking the question," DeFontes responded.

Other discussions focused on the effectiveness of the networks of utilities used to provide extra crews during major storm cleanup. BGE officials have said they struggled to get the necessary crews that they might have assembled in advance, had there been more warnings of the storm.

They emphasized that their power-restoration figures were comparable in number of outages and time spent repairing them to their efforts after Hurricane Irene a year ago, despite their inability to put on 1,000 more workers from other utilities, as they did for Irene.

Nazarian castigated the utility for failing to provide more specific information on outage locations to county emergency responders, something six county executives and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake complained of in a letter to the utility soon after the storm. In response, BGE officials said they were seeking to protect customers' privacy, but Nazarian was not pleased with that answer.

"What conceivable personal privacy issue could thwart you all giving outage information to public emergency management officials?" Nazarian asked.

"We didn't know with certainty how carefully it would be protected," DeFontes responded.

Officials also responded to criticism about estimates of the time it would take to repair specific outages. In many cases, commissioners said, customers were told no estimates would be provided.

"We really desperately wanted to give more specific information earlier in the event," said Steve Woerner, BGE's chief operating officer. "There is still a gap between what we have been able to do and what customers would like us to do. We have not given up on that."

Some customers may have had difficulty reaching the utility to report an outage via one of three hot lines, commissioners said. That could have been because the one with a local exchange, 410-685-0123, still receives a high call volume even though the utility directs customers to call 1-877-778-2222 and another 1-800 number to report outages, said Jeannette M. Mills, BGE's chief customer officer.

The utility is planning to upgrade its outage map on its website to make it more informative and also to launch a smartphone application by the end of this year to help improve customer communication.

sdance@baltsun.com

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