Pepco, Dominion and BGE cite severity of storm in explaining long recovery

Politicians may not have been happy Sunday when power companies told customers that their electricity may not return until the end of the week, but the severity of Friday night’s storm left utility officials opting for candor as work crews began to spread out to neighborhoods.

Racing at speeds of more than 60 mph with explosive force, Friday’s line of thunderstorms knocked out power and knocked down large numbers of trees, many of them huge, leaving officials struggling to even complete a damage assessment.

Rodney Blevins, vice president of electric distribution operations for Dominion Virginia Power, said the weekend’s storm caused the third-worst outage in company history. It is the only one of its five largest mass outages not caused by a hurricane, he said.

The aftermath compelled utilities to focus first on restoring power to critical sites — hospitals, emergency services and the lines that are the backbones of the system and distribute power to substations that, in turn, feed miles of lines headed to thousands of customers.

As they focused on those priorities, local utilities also found themselves competing for outside crews to supplement their workforces in a pool already strained by similar calls from power providers along the path of storms that cut from Chicago to the Atlantic Ocean.

Baltimore Gas and Electric, Dominion Power and Pepco each had put out a call for 1,000 added workers in appeals to other utilities, officials said. Dominion had its extra 1,000 committed by midday Sunday. BGE had about 900, while Pepco had about 580, spokesmen said.

Those crews will push out to local levels this week.

To customers still sitting in sweltering darkness “downstream,” in utility-speak, as temperatures hovered near triple digits, explanations of how power gets to their homes undoubtedly sounded more aggravating than enlightening. Many people used generators for electricity, and authorities warned against using them indoors or near windows.

Pepco explained that it would take until Friday to get 90 percent of its customers restored. The utility wouldn’t even venture an estimate on the final 10 percent until Wednesday. BGE officials also said it would take most of the week to get all the power running. Dominion officials said most customers would have power by Tuesday, though everyone will not have electricity restored until the weekend.

In any event, two days after a major storm is too soon to know how well utilities are handling the challenges of restoring service. It is also too soon to tell whether the extensive recent tree trimming and improvements to equipment will help the response of Pepco, whose past performances leave it under continuing scrutiny by customers and regulators who are weighing Pepco’s pending rate hike requests in the District and Maryland.

Detailed reports that enable comparisons among utilities hit by the same storm are filed to state regulators weeks after an event. They offer a narrow look at performance during a major weather event. And even when they have been completed, it is hard to compare a utility’s post-storm surge to its day-to-day performance on clear days that, in more comprehensive reliability studies, left Pepco ranked near the bottom in keeping the power on and bringing it back once it goes out, an analysis by The Washington Post found in 2010.

At a Sunday news conference, Pepco Region President Thomas H. Graham avoided discussing whether Pepco’s performance this week will affect its pending rate cases, which could add $5 to $6 a month to the bills of its residential customers in the District and Montgomery and Prince George’s counties. Graham’s face and voice have become well-known in past months through a wide marketing campaign assuring customers that Pepco “gets it” and is working on its reliability.

“We can address that down the road,” Graham said of the pending rate increases while circling back to his theme that Pepco’s focus on restoring power is “paramount.”

Despite delays in getting outside crews, there were some early signs that Pepco had remedied behavior that brought it past criticism from Montgomery County, including quickly posting an official in the county Emergency Operations Center to coordinate efforts on things such as locating cooling centers close to the largest outages.

“Pepco also has been on every call,” unlike during the storms of 2010, said Chris Voss, director of Montgomery’s Office of Emergency Management and Homeland Security. As the storm response moves to the street level, Voss said, “we’ll see how this progresses.”

It was a caution repeated by Paul Quander, the District’s deputy mayor for public safety and justice. He generally praised Pepco as he surveyed conditions in the District, reporting that 57 city intersections remained without power as of early Sunday evening.

Police had sworn in 20 soldiers of the D.C. National Guard by Sunday morning to assist in recovery efforts, including patrolling intersections without working signals and clearing trees from city streets.

Quander said the power company has made progress on other priorities, such as bringing health-care and senior facilities online, as well as key government facilities. He said the District sent a set of priorities to Pepco, starting with addressing live downed power lines. “Essentially they are in the driver’s seat,” Quander said.

“I think they’re trying to do the best they can,” he said. “I think they’re giving us a fair shake, a fair opportunity” vis-a-vis the other jurisdictions Pepco serves. 

Mary Pat Flaherty works on investigative and long-range stories. Her work has won numerous national awards, including the Pulitzer Prize.
Mike DeBonis covers local politics and government for The Washington Post. He also writes a blog and a political analysis column that runs on Fridays.
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