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No simple fix for power outages as state tackles grid reliability

Group begins to explore burying of power lines, other issues

By Scott Dance, The Baltimore Sun

8:05 PM EDT, August 21, 2012

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Gov. Martin O'Malley's administration launched an effort Tuesday to limit the extended power outages that have troubled Marylanders in recent months, but industry experts warned that any solution could require significant costs and trade-offs.

Montgomery County Councilman Roger Berliner said it was an outrage that reliability in Maryland doesn't match that of some countries, where a year's worth of outages are measured in a matter of minutes. "Power outages have become the No. 1 threat to our quality of life," said Berliner, a member of a new gubernatorial task force on electricity reliability.

The group, which held its first meeting Tuesday, was formed after the lengthy storm-related power interruptions in recent years, punctuated by a deadly derecho June 29. The group includes representatives from state agencies, local governments and energy industry groups.

Some members said solving the problem could mean making expensive investments in infrastructure, and could come at the same time "smart" meters and appliances and electric cars place new conditions and demands on the grid.

"Right now we have sort of a one-size-fits-all approach that's supposed to be very high reliability for all customers, and the costs of the reliability and the outages being avoided is all impossible to discern," said John Jimison, managing director of the Energy Future Coalition, a nonpartisan Washington think tank. "That doesn't make economic sense."

The roundtable will explore issues including burial of power lines, investment in the grid, and utility line crew staffing, all of which received significant attention after the derecho.

The derecho knocked out power to more than 1 million Maryland households. In the Baltimore area, the outages lasted an average of 38 hours, according to Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. Three people died in Maryland during the storm, and 21 people died of heat-related illnesses over the following nine days.

The meeting was the first of nine that will take place over the next month – lightning speed for Annapolis. It is expected to present recommendations for changes in policy or regulation to improve electric grid reliability by Sept. 24.

But to start, officials acknowledged that solving the problem requires defining the desired result. Rajnish Barua, executive director of the National Regulatory Research Institute, called reliability "an engineering calculation of a socially acceptable standard."

The Maryland Public Service Commission earlier this year established new reliability guidelines regarding downed wire response, outage duration, reception of customer phone calls and improvements made to the poorest-performing electricity feeders, commission staff counsel Leslie Romine told the group. Utilities' first reports on the guidelines will likely be filed in April, Romine said.

Until the new regulations were adopted, it was difficult to define reliability, she said.

"We never really had solid standards on what that meant," Romine said. "We had a notion of it, kind of like the old obscenity standards."

More measurement of utility performance and outage costs could help inform solutions, Jimison said. Utility critics such as state Sen. James Rosapepe, a Democrat representing Prince George's and Anne Arundel counties, have argued the hundreds of dollars of spoiled food lost in outages should be factored in when weighing the cost of burying power lines, for example.

"Reliability has value," Jimison said. "It has different values for different people."

Given the state of the economy, Berliner argued, "There has never been a better time to make an investment in our infrastructure."

But some were more measured in their evaluation of the problem.

"I'm not sure that's a realistic expectation," Maryland Energy Administration executive director Malcolm Woolf said of efforts to limit outages to virtually zero. "We certainly can make great lengths to improve our reliability, but we have to recognize the realities we have."

The panel's research is separate from an investigation the Maryland Public Service Commission is conducting. The commission routinely reviews utilities' storm responses after major events. It held a series of hearings earlier this month, collecting comments from the public, and will hold formal hearings with utility leaders in September.

Abigail Hopper, O'Malley's chief energy adviser, said the roundtable's discussions are about finding areas where recommendations can be made for further investigation or for new policies.

"We've all been through a lot," Hopper said. "Let's just start fresh and talk about what we can do to make this better."

Officials from BGE and other utilities are not members of the roundtable, but some officials with Washington-area utility Pepco were in the audience.

BGE spokesman Rob Gould said the utility "appreciates the governor's forward-looking perspective, particularly where it concerns the potential for greater investment in the state's electric infrastructure along with the associated costs and benefits."

One roundtable member emphasized that the solution shouldn't come solely from utilities. Michael Fischer, director of operations for the Maryland Emergency Management Agency, stressed a need to look at how Marylanders should be told to prepare and to take care of each other in major power outages or other emergencies.

"We're part of the solution," Fischer said. "All of us."

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