As of Monday evening, Pepco had restored power to “about half” of its customers who lost juice in Friday’s sudden storm. Elsewhere in the region, Baltimore Gas and Electric and Dominion Power in Northern Virginia said they had restored service to more than two-thirds of their affected customers.
Government officials and customers complained that Pepco’s approach to estimating restoration times — nearly everyone is told that their service will be back by Friday at 11 p.m. — adds to the impression that the utility isn’t up to the job.
“I have a lot of people in my district who’ve lived all over the world, and they’ve never seen such unreliable service,” said Montgomery County Council President Roger Berliner (D-Potomac-Bethesda). “People joke about Pepco being the Pakistan Electric Power Company. I’m just so tired of Pepco’s PR. It’s time for performance, not PR.”
“There’s no evidence that giving them more money improves their performance,” said Sandra Mattavous-Frye, the District’s people’s counsel, whose city office represents utility customers’ interests. “Pepco must be required to say why they’re moving at a much slower pace than utilities in the same region dealing with the same storm.”
Pepco officials and some regulators say that it is too soon to conclude that the company’s performance is lagging and that with the utility only partway through its five-year, $110 million campaign to improve reliability, conditions for its 800,000 customers in Washington and suburban Maryland will only get better.
“We don’t really believe it’s appropriate to compare restoration rates between companies,” said William Gausman, Pepco’s senior vice president for strategic initiatives.
He said that the suddenness and strength of Friday’s storm made it highly unusual but that the utility has improved its ability to respond to extreme weather.
By updating equipment, trimming trees and adding staff, Pepco has reduced the frequency of outages in storms by 43 percent in the past year and cut the duration of outages by 67 percent over that same period, said Michael Maxwell, Pepco’s vice president for asset management.
“But in a storm like the one we just had, you had 100-foot trees toppling over from across the street, taking out wires,” Maxwell said. Tree-trimming programs only target trees directly along the path of electric wires, not big trees across the way.
Since the 2010 and 2011 storms that caused lengthy outages, Pepco has come under closer inspection. A Washington Post investigation found that Pepco ranked near the bottom nationally among electric companies in its ability to keep the power on and restore it after outages. The Post found that Pepco customers experienced 70 percent more outages than customers of other metropolitan area utilities.