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Briarwood residents meet with BG&E over outage complaints

After last August's Hurricane Irene, when houses in the South Laurel Briarwood community were without power for more than four days, resident Mary Swift had had enough of what she saw as seemingly excessive power outages.

Swift, 65, decided to take up a petition among her neighbors to request the help of state and county elected officials in determining who to contact at Baltimore Gas & Electric about service disruptions in the community.

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District 21 Del. Joseline Peña-Melnyck monitored the progress of the request and Spenser Dove, her legislative aide, was instrumental in connecting Swift with a BG&E contact. Swift then set up a meeting on Jan. 10 at the Laurel Municipal Pool meeting room.

Michael Garzon, BG&E's supervisor of customer reliability support, and Jasmine Hicks, an engineer with Constellation Energy, briefed the group, providing an electric system overview and some statistics on the Briarwood outages. Garzon said the system includes a major substation on Route 216 and a Montpelier substation feeder near Muirkirk, which is underground. In recent years, specialized electronic equipment, such as black dot fuses and reclosers have been added in the Briarwood area, where the electric poles and lines are above ground. A recloser is a circuit breaker equipped with a mechanism that can automatically close the breaker after it has been opened due to a fault. If a tree branch falls on a line or a squirrel chews a line, he said, a recloser tries multiple times to see if the fault clears. Garzon said that when a customer sees the lights blink, a recloser device is checking the line's fault status.

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Garzon said that prior to 1969, developers told the utility to put the electric poles and lines in Briarwood along property lines behind the houses; the poles and lines are above ground. There is no easy access to the back of the houses in Briarwood since the yards back up to each other. The very tall, mature trees in the backyards have often fallen on the power lines and disrupted power. The trees along these power lines were trimmed last year and BG&E is on a four-year tree trimming cycle. Squirrels, which are plentiful in the neighborhood, also cause outages by chewing on power lines.

As provided in the BG&E statistics, Briarwood's outage history includes three in 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2009; five in 2010; and two in 2011. In looking at BG&E specifics, the longest outages in 2011 were Jan. 26, for just under 62 hours because of trees on the wires; and Aug. 27 for 107 hours (more than four days), because of a tree on a wire during Hurricane Irene. The 2010 outages were caused when a vehicle struck a substation line pole on Feb. 4; trees were down on May 11 and July 27; there was a substation lockout on June 28; and lightning struck a sub transmission line on July 29,.

At the meeting, some of the Briarwood residents disputed the outage length and said they were not pleased that the statistics didn't go back more years.

Garzon and Hicks explained the actions BG&E has taken to improve conditions in the Briarwood area, such as improved and detailed data analysis, visual inspection of overhead circuits, wildlife protection, remote-read smart meters and investigation of equipment. They said they will also keep communications open with the Briarwood community and continue to monitor the reliability of the area's electric system.

Michael Fowler, local affairs manager for Constellation Energy, said that during major events that cause massive power outages, the industry best practice is to return the larger developments to service. This means that the power to smaller home developments will be restored later. He also said that non-severe outages should be addressed in one to two hours after Briarwood residents call BG&E.

After the metting, Swift said she was "pleased with the meeting because it opened a dialogue with BG&E. They are going to improve our infrastructure somewhat but because of the size of our development, we will still be last on the list."

Swift said in making the meeting a reality, she physically walked the neighborhood and got signatures on her petition from at least 64 of the 78 houses in Briarwood. She put together a package, which she delivered to the District 21 delegation and to Council member Lehman.

"If people need things done, they have to have a clear agenda and support of their neighbors, and then they can get the type of action needed," Swift said.

After the meeting, Rachael Lighty, BG&E senior analyst, said in a statement that "we (BG&E) will continue to execute our tree trimming plan, as well as continue to monitor the community and respond to any inquiries customers may have about their service."

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