Customers vent to PSC about BGE's performance in Irene

Customers of Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. asked Maryland's energy regulator to hold the utility accountable for what they described as poor performance in the wake of Hurricane Irene, which left 756,000 people without power, some for as long as eight days.

At a public hearing Tuesday night in Towson, residents complained to the Public Service Commission about the company's restoration priorities, lack of communication, tree-trimming and other maintenance efforts.

"I became aware of the lousy job BGE does in 1992," said Ralph Jaffe, who asked for the resignation of the five-member commission, saying the state regulator has done little to ensure reliable service from BGE. "Fast forward to 2011: Nothing has changed."

PSC Chairman Douglas Nazarian told the crowd of about 40 people that it was important for the commission to hear from customers as it reviews the performance of BGE and other utilities. The PSC will hear from BGE and other utilities in regulatory hearings starting Oct. 3.

Though power was restored to more than 95 percent of customers within five days, some were left in the dark for eight days. Affected customers had no electricity for an average of 37 hours after Irene hit Maryland last month, forcing businesses to close, schools to cancel classes and residents to scramble.

BGE revealed in a report evaluating its storm performance submitted to the commission last week that it spent $81 million in restoration efforts. The utility said it expects to pass on some of those costs in a future electricity distribution rate increase, though it has not revealed when it might request one.

Because of questions the commission has received already on this potential rate request, Nazarian told the crowd that BGE has a right to ask for a rate increase, but it must be approved by the PSC.

One customer told the commission that his family could not afford any potential rate hike.

Susan O'Brien, vice president of public affairs for the Health Facilities Association of Maryland, who operates nursing homes in the Baltimore region, said that such facilities "must be a priority" for power restoration in similar situations. Some of its nursing homes lost power for five days and operated with generators.

Given that nursing homes provide complex medical care for the elderly, O'Brien said, nursing homes should be given the same consideration as hospitals.

While residents at its nursing homes were safe, some were transferred to other sites, O'Brien said.

BGE placed priorities on public safety, critical infrastruture such as hospitals and pumping stations, and feeders that served many customers.

State Sen. Nancy Jacobs, whose district covers Harford County, said she received numerous complaints from business owners, especially along the Route 40 corridor, about losing power and getting conflicting answers from BGE about when electricity would be restored.

Some businesses were told by BGE that there weren't enough people without power in their areas so they were not high on the priority list, Jacobs said.

"It's a high priority for my people who go to work," she said.

Jacobs and other customers claimed that BGE has cut back on its tree-trimming budget over the years.

BGE spokesman Rob Gould disputed that characterization, noting that the utility has been steadily increasing its expenses for tree pruning. This year, BGE expects to spend around $38 million this year, up from $29 million in 2010.

One challenge BGE faced was that Irene uprooted healthy trees that would not have been normally targeted by the utility for pruning or removal, Gould said. Another is that the utility encounters customers who do not want their trees touched even if they have been identified as a problem, he said.

A few BGE employees testified at the hearing to provide some insights into the massive restoration effort that involved several thousand workers, including many from out of state.

Linemen and tree-trimmers and other BGE employees worked 16-hour days for as long as eight days, said Mike Starner, a supervisor at the utility.

"All our employees went out every day to get the lights back on," Starner said.

BGE said it's working on providing customers more accurate estimated times of restoration and raising public awareness of its restoration process.

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