Power outages put focus on storm response, lessons for future

Vanessa Burnham, right, a residents of the 700 block of Hollen Road reacts after hearing from BGE crewman Jesse Palmisano, left, that her home's electrical power might be restored today. The neighborhood has been without electrical power for almost a week since last Friday's storm.
Vanessa Burnham, right, a residents of the 700 block of Hollen Road reacts after hearing from BGE crewman Jesse Palmisano, left, that her home's electrical power might be restored today. The neighborhood has been without electrical power for almost a week since last Friday's storm. (Kenneth K. Lam/Baltimore Sun)

Jack and Betty Scrivener of Stoneleigh lost power last August thanks to Hurricane Irene. They lost it again when storms pummeled the region June 30 — and after one very long, very hot week, the elderly couple still hadn't gotten it back. They don't know if they can take another extended outage.

"It'll probably drive us into a retirement home, because I'm 85," Jack Scrivener said Friday afternoon as a generator provided just enough juice for three outlets at their Ridgeleigh Road home. "It is so hard on people in our age group."

Not that it's been easy on anybody, coming amid a scorching heat wave that authorities have blamed for 10 deaths in Maryland. Three other deaths were related to the storm itself.

As utility crews worked to restore power to the Scriveners and thousands of others still stuck in the dark, Baltimore Gas and Electric Co.'s critics faulted the utility's response and called for changes that included improving communication with customers and putting power lines underground.

BGE counters that burying wires would be wildly expensive, with a price tag in the billions. The utility says it has responded as well as it could to the recent storm, which resembled a hurricane without much warning. And the company says it has implemented lessons from Irene, including not over-promising how quickly it could turn the lights back on.

By Saturday night, about 6,000 customers remained without power, down from a high more than 700,000.

"I've never seen an event like we just had," said A. Christopher Burton, a BGE vice president. "I've got 26 years in the industry. This is new on me."

But if the particulars of the latest storm made it unusual, some observers speculate that global climate change could cause an increase in such potent storms, forcing utilities to find new ways to adapt.

"The new normal may be you're going to have a storm once, twice, three times a year where a significant amount of people are losing power for two or three days," said Barry Scanlon, president of Witt Associates, a disaster management consulting firm in Washington. "And that's if the utility is doing a really good job."

State Sen. James C. Rosapepe says utilities like BGE and Pepco need to rethink their outlook.

"It's no longer an excuse for the utilities to say that we are shocked, shocked, shocked that the wind blew hard, or that it rained a lot or that it snowed for three days," he said. "It's unpredictable what weather event will take place on what day, but it is more predictable that we will continue to have them."

Rosapepe, a Democrat whose district includes parts of Prince George's and Anne Arundel counties, advocates burying power lines so that falling trees won't cause widespread outages.

He also backs forming a National Guard-like unit of reserve utility workers to mobilize after big storms, lessening reliance on out-of-state crews. (About 1,900 linemen from Canada to Texas have assisted more than 2,500 BGE workers in the last week's repairs.) He envisions tapping underemployed workers or retirees — "people who don't work for them every day but have the skills to get on the case immediately."

The current situation is unacceptable, he says. "When it happens in the middle of a heat wave, this thing is killing people," he said. "It's horrendous, and it's absolutely unnecessary."

Another criticism leveled at BGE has been the company's communication with the public.

"There is no excuse for the lack of information being given to customers," said AARP Maryland senior state director Hank Greenberg. "That should be organized far before the next storm."

He added: "It's very frustrating to be left being told it will be back in a week, and then change it to nine days."

Greenberg pointed to other ideas that would help with future storms. Those include designating community liaisons to communicate with residents in specific areas and identifying vulnerable populations ahead of time so they receive top priority with assistance.

BGE says it is premature for it to comment in detail on what it has learned from the recent storm. The utility will likely have until the end of the month to file an official storm report to state regulators at the Public Service Commission.

After Irene, which left 756,000 without power, 95 percent of customers were restored within five days, but some were dark for eight days. On average, affected customers lost power for 37 hours.

The PSC has since approved new reliability standards, which specify how quickly utilities must restore service under varying conditions and govern utilities' customer service, tree-trimming and other maintenance efforts. But for storms like the recent one that cut power to more than half of their customers, utilities are simply required to resolve outages as soon as possible.

Company spokesman Rob Gould said Maryland has experienced relatively few storms of this kind over the past decade or so. He said the short list includes Hurricane Floyd in 1999, Tropical Storm Isabel in 2003 and Hurricane Irene last year.

"This truly was an extremely unusual historical event," Gould said.

Burton, the BGE executive, said Irene provided a number of useful lessons that the utility has put into practice since the June 30 storm, known as a derecho.

The company has used greater caution in estimating when power would be restored, he said. After Irene, for example, it might have given a specific time to 100 homeowners, not realizing that 20 of those homeowners would still be affected by a different problem.

"While we made 80 people happy," he said, "we really upset the 20 because we didn't realize there was another job." This time, he said, the utility hasn't given estimates for when power will be restored "unless we have high confidence we're going to get things back."

Burton said BGE has also done a better job concentrating power restoration efforts in specific locations. While crews reattached fallen wires to poles on a particular road, he said, other crews have gone behind nearby houses to connect smaller wires to homes, thereby completing the job for those properties. After previous storms, the crews often made big repairs first and returned hours or days later for the smaller fixes.

Other changes include better coordination with local governments to reopen major roads onto which live wires had possibly fallen, he said, and making clearer to the public that safety workers standing guard near fallen wires are not necessarily qualified to make the actual repairs.

Burton said putting more "smart meters" in utility customers' homes will help because those automatically notify BGE of outages. The company otherwise still relies on customer telephone calls to notify them.

But to Rosapepe and others, much bigger changes are needed — especially putting wires underground.

In some parts of the country, burying power lines has taken decades of investment and work, but has resulted in significant drops in outages, said John Kelly, executive director of the Perfect Power Institute, a Chicago group that advocates for power grid reliability.

In Naperville, Ill., power lines running between homes and substations were buried over 20 years, cutting the average customer's annual outage time from two hours to 20 minutes, he said. San Diego applies a special charge on customers' bills to raise $50 million annually to pay for burying cable.

Kelly acknowledged that burying the lines that transmit electricity from power plants to substations would be impractical, but it's also unnecessary, he said. Outages rarely arise from damage to transmission lines, he said, but rather from damage to wires between substations and homes and businesses.

That was the case for BGE during the recent storm, and it meant that many of the week's final repairs restored power to 50 or fewer homes.

BGE's Burton says the utility has done "undergrounding" in some areas, including a part of Bowie. Since the early 1970s the state has mandated underground wiring for all new developments.

But he said burying existing lines would be hugely expensive. Cost estimates range from $1 million to $5 million a mile, he said, and BGE has around 9,000 miles of above-ground wires, putting the low-end cost around $9 billion. That does not include wires that run from poles to homes.

"You're talking on the order of billions of dollars if you were to put all of the circuits underground," Burton said, and those costs would eventually be passed on to customers.

Rosapepe calls the cost-based objection a "phony argument." He thinks the PSC should adopt a policy laying out which lines most need to be underground based on how many customers they serve, and start by burying those.

Speaking of cost, he says prolonged outages produce massive losses. For instance, if 500,000 homes lose $200 worth of food, he said, that's $100 million.

But Scanlon of Witt Associates says no amount of prioritizing could make the burying of electrical wires a reality any time soon, considering the public policy and political realities. "You're talking about a couple-decade-long process," he said.

Back in Stoneleigh, the Scriveners have made do with the generator that their son bought them.

Early on they had to decide what to plug into the three precious outlets. The refrigerator was a necessity. A single lamp in the den got the second plug. The third brought with it a dilemma: "We had to choose between being able to fix meals or be cool," Jack Scrivener said. They opted for a window air-conditioning unit.

"It's a terrible condition," Scrivener said of the storm's aftermath across the region. "It really is."

Fortunately, he said, next-door neighbors Shawn and Nicole Halsey have sent over hot meals and refilled the generator when fuel runs low. "I don't think we could have made it through this without them," he said.

Baltimore Sun reporter Scott Dance contributed to this article.




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