The Power Struggle: Pepco Confronts Power Outage Issues, Yet Customers Expect The Worst

As winter approaches, Montgomery County residents worry about power outages after dealing with several multi-day long outages in 2010.

Santa’s ready for his close-up with your kid at the mall, 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 — — 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 . 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. 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.

R, Dietrich December 19, 2011 at 01:35 PM
Pepco needs to improve the grids.
Marly Carpenter December 20, 2011 at 03:36 AM
Pepco is trying to improve it's record, but it has 15 years of neglect to make up for. Customers should hope for the best, but be ready for the worst when the winter weather hits.
R. Freedman December 20, 2011 at 06:02 PM
Rate payers shouldn't have to install a backup system, an expensive option that's way beyond the financial means of most residents. Pepco has demonstrated the worst of corporate citizenry for decades. I'm not against returning profits to shareholders, but only after basic responsibilities to customers (like maintenance)have been met. Only after being exposed by mother nature and threatened by government has this company reacted. I support recently elected Council President Berliner in his efforts to make Pepco financially accountable for its neglectful operation and explore options for their ouster.
karl December 27, 2011 at 03:58 AM
A big part of Pepco's problem is Montgomery county! I had the pleasure of spending some time with a bunch of their line crews and out of state contractors last summer. The out of state guys were amazed at how bad the tree damage was. One of the Pepco supervisors explained that in the "good old days" Pepco pretty much had free reign to trim any tree or limb that was in reach of their lines. The Infinitely wise council restricted them to only trimming "5 year growth" many years ago. Now they are restricted to a 3 year growth and in some areas they are benign pushed to a 1 year growth! That kind of restriction makes the tree trimming much more delicate exponentially more costly and less reliable. And good old Moco spends a lot more money planting trees in the right of way, only adding to the problem. I know there is a lot more to the issue than that, it doesn't explain the clear day outages. You can be sure of one thing in Moco, if something is screwed up real good somehow the council is involved.
Jeepster January 02, 2012 at 12:59 AM
This is my question to PEPCO: Pepco, what is your MISSION? WHY do you exist? [is it not first and foremost to deliver electrictiy to paying households -- all the time? If you can't do that, approaching 100% of the time, than cease doing other things - like PR ads, and giving money collected from us to whatever charities YOU decide to give to, etc - and fix the infrastructure that delivers your main product: power] Yes, you need to bury ALL the electric wires -- bite the bullet, do it and EVERYONE will be happy, and you'll fulfill your mission mandate. Speaking of mission mandate, what if the Secret Service strove for an 80% or 90% or even 95% success rate in protecting the President? -- I think their defintion of mission success and protective assurance is 100%. It CAN be achieved. Do what you need to do, whatever the cost, and be fully successful, not just marginally.


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