January-February 2011 | Features

Power to the People

Can Pepco ensure there isn't a repeat of last year's complaints?

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It’s one thing to be snowed in and curled up by a fire with a book and a cup of hot cocoa. It’s another when the heat is off and the house is dark, a scenario 97,000 Pepco customers faced in Montgomery County, courtesy of last February’s storms.

Then there was the spectacular summer storm last July that darkened the homes of nearly all of the utility’s 300,000 Montgomery County customers.

Two major power failures—along with chronic power outages with no weather to hold responsible—have invited harsh criticism and new scrutiny of the power company, which serves 780,000 customers in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties and the District of Columbia.

Pepco’s reliability issues prompted its wearier customers to invest in generators; others took their complaints to packed hearings held by the Maryland Public Service Commission. That panel’s investigation of the utility is ongoing.

Pepco acknowledges that it ranks in the bottom 25 percent of power companies nationwide for reliability of daily service. The utility has unveiled a five-year, $250 million plan to improve that, including “enhanced vegetation management” (tree-trimming), moving more cables underground and upgrading selected substations. Pepco is also addressing communication issues, with the notable addition of interactive online maps that constantly update the location and status of outages.

Tom Graham, the utility’s regional president, says part of Pepco’s problem is public perception of what it can and cannot do.

“There seems to be an appreciation for the crews out in the street, working in the snow and the rain and the wind,” Graham says. “But I don’t think there’s a full appreciation of what it takes to restore service.”

Like the county, the utility tracks storms as they approach, adding staff as needed and putting outside contractors on notice for extra repair work. Pepco has a permanent control center in Montgomery County that monitors the whole system, including substations and large transformers. But in the event of major storms such as last February’s double whammy, Pepco activates a command center in a 9th-floor conference room at its D.C. headquarters.

The Joint Information Center (JIC) is staffed around the clock, with employees working 12-hour shifts instead of eight. Their jobs change, too. In customer service, for example, “if you normally have 35 people taking calls from the public, that number would go up to more than 200,” Graham says.

Customer calls, he adds, play an essential role in the restoration of power. “We need customers to call in to let us know they’re out of service,” he says. “If a substation is down, we’ll know. If a main circuit is down, we’ll know. But if a transformer is blown on a pole serving four to six houses, or a single line from a pole to a house is knocked out, we won’t know.”

If storm damage is extensive, a call goes out to Mid-Atlantic Mutual Assistance (MAMA), the industry-wide request for help. In the aftermath of July’s storm, 250 crews from as far away as Ohio came to Pepco’s aid. After the February storms, most of the help came from the South.

As with snow removal, repair crews work 16-hour shifts until power is restored, starting with problems that affect the largest areas and saving individual outages for last. Over the summer, nearly all of Pepco’s 300,000 Montgomery County customers lost power, with 1,953 reports of downed wires. Last February, 97,000 customers lost service, with 1,147 reports of downed wires. Repair crews replaced 127 transformers and 83 broken poles in the summer, after replacing 20 transformers and 21 poles in the winter.

Though more customers lost service in July than in February, it took five days to restore power in the summer, compared with seven days in the winter. It was a matter of access. Roads were blocked in the winter and everything was buried under snow. “You can only push equipment so hard for so long. You can only push people for so hard and so long,” Graham says.

But it’s Pepco’s performance on otherwise uneventful days that is a greater cause of concern for some. “We continue to have power outages for no obvious reason—at least to the average consumer,” says Nancy Floreen, an at-large member of the Montgomery County Council.

Council member Roger Berliner (District 1) and others are calling for regulators to establish performance standards for Pepco, and to make sure they are met. “Pepco has to make a significant investment in its system in order to provide more reliable power,” Berliner says. “It is ultimately up to the Public Service Commission, not Pepco, to determine the level of investment necessary to achieve that degree of reliability.”

Says Floreen: “It’s clear that Pepco issues will remain front and center for some time into the future.”