The Public Service Commission has decided that consumers must pay part of the cost related to the breakdown of a Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. power plant -- a decision that could have far more expensive consequences in a separate case yet to be decided.
While the latest decision involved only a few million dollars, it might provide a glimpse into the possible outcome in a three-year-old, $458 million case pending before the PSC.
In that case, the commission must decide whether BG&E; or its customers should pay for, or share the costs of, replacement power needed after problems arose at the Calvert Cliffs nuclear power plant from May 1989 to May 1991. Arguments in that case are expected to be completed by the end of next year.
"If the commission can justify charging costs in this case, the law provides little protection to the public," said People's Counsel John M. Glynn, the state official who represents consumers before the PSC.
The current decision, issued late Thursday, involved a three-month shutdown in 1989 of the C.P. Crane Unit No. 2 plant, a coal-fired generator on Seneca Creek Road near Chase. The generator's turbine rotor overheated and collided with stationary parts of the turbine as it was being restarted.
Because of that accident, BG&E; had to pay $3.1 million to other utilities for replacement power during the shutdown period.
In its decision, the five-member commission decided that BG&E;'s customers must pay 25 percent, or $771,250, of the costs.
While the commission said "that management action or inaction was responsible for the outage," it also found extenuating circumstances.
In what it termed a "close call," the commission said "many unusual factors contributed to cause the outage, most of which could not be blamed on management action or in action."
"In sum, the commission believes that while the company did not meet its burden of proving that it had maintained the productive capacity of all its generating plants at a reasonable level, extenuating circumstances warrant some relief [for BG&E;] from bearing the full responsibilities for the replacement power costs," the commission said.
The decision overturned a PSC hearing examiner's decision in March 1991 that said BG&E; should bear the full cost of the shutdown.
The additional costs have not been passed on to customers yet because the company has postponed collecting about $200 million worth of fuel adjustment charges stemming from this case and another case. As a result, that account will be reduced by $2.3 million -- the portion that BG&E; must pay.
Mr. Glynn, the people's counsel, criticized the decision. "There are always extenuating circumstances," he said. He said he would appeal the decision to Baltimore Circuit Court.
A BG&E; spokesman, Arthur Slusark, said the company could not comment on the case because it did not have time to review it.
"We're not going to draw any linkage whatsoever with the Calvert Cliffs fuel replacement case," he said.
Mr. Glynn also questioned why it took the commission more than two years to make a ruling after the hearing examiner's decision. "I think it is troubling that it would take that long, but I have no idea why," he said.
The commission chairman, Frank O. Heintz, said the decision was delayed because the PSC, which was missing two commissioners for nearly a year beginning in the summer of 1991, was waiting for a full five-person panel to consider the new negligence issue raised by the case.