Santa’s ready for his close-up with your kid at the mall, Starbucks cups are their signature winter red again, and sleigh-bell sound effects are permeating the radio air. It can all mean only one thing:
It’s time to start worrying about power outages.
It is a familiar story for Montgomery County residents who rely on Pepco: When the snow comes down, the power goes out.
“We have lots of problems with Pepco,” said Max Shrier, 21, who has lived in Potomac for about seven years. “The power goes out almost every time there's any kind of serious weather problems. It will just turn off randomly some times, and they have slow response times. Sometimes we’ll lose power for days.”
Pepco spokesman Andre Francis said there’s no way the company can prevent every outage during a storm, but it is taking steps — namely, by trimming tree branches and updating the older parts of its infrastructure — to reduce both the frequency and length of customer outages.
“All of the reliability work we’ve been doing now is going to help that,” he said.
According to a report prepared by the Maryland Public Service Commission, Pepco projected that it will spend more than $70 million on reliability issues this year. That’s a sharp increase from 2010, when it spent $39.4 million.
The report said that Pepco took more than seven days to restore power to all of its customers following a storm on Feb. 5, 2010. It took up to six days for Pepco to make repairs to damaged substations and power lines caused by a trio of thunderstorms that summer.
In Montgomery County in 2010, the System Average Interruption Duration Index (SAIDI) — which measures the average outage time for each customer served — was 265 minutes. The nationwide average SAIDI number, according to the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners, is 107 minutes.
But when it came to preparing for “major events” that occurred this summer, Pepco was on target.
This year, Pepco called for reinforcements from out-of-state power companies six days before Hurricane Irene made landfall on Aug. 27. Before the storm hit the East Coast, Pepco nearly doubled its ranks, employing more than 2,500 personnel in the restoration effort, according to an Aug. 28 company release.
Pepco’s actions before and after Hurricane Irene allowed it to restore power to nearly 95 percent of 220,000 affected customers within 48 hours, according to the company’s website.
Although Pepco has shown increasing foresight regarding storm preparation, it might not be enough for Montgomery County officials. The county may explore a nonprofit option similar to the Southern Maryland Electric Cooperative, which serves customers in Calvert, Charles, Prince George's and St. Mary's counties as a public power company.
"It would be irresponsible for our county not to explore a public power option," he said.
If the council moved forward — and, as Berliner insists, "We don't have the facts yet," — they would likely need to go through the state legislature to do so. And even that is a long way away, as Berliner awaits both a response from the attorney general and further research.
“I think that is sort of a fundamental issue that we need clarification on before we take any further steps," he said.
“I don’t think that it’s feasible” for a co-op to form, Francis said.
But customers aren’t waiting for that decision. Before there’s even a flurry in the forecast, some customers already have their backup plans in place.
“Last year we got a big generator, so we have peace of mind,” said Connie Caulfield, a Potomac resident. “We had about three different incidents when we were out for days and each time we said, ‘We’re doing it right away.’”
Editor's Note: This post is a part of a larger series on Pepco's progress on its reliability and Montgomery County's move for a public power option. To read more of this series, check out The Power Struggle.