For Pepco customers without power, frustration grows four days after storm

For the past year, Pepco’s multimillion-dollar TV and print ad campaign has promised that “We’re ready for everything,” as a utility worker vows in a TV spot called “Reliability.”

But such promises — “You can rely on Pepco to get this work done,” says another worker in a TV ad — are proving hard to stomach for hundreds of thousands of Washington area residents now entering their fourth day without electricity.

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.

“Two years ago, it was very clear we were not meeting our customers’ expectations in terms of reliability,” said Laura Monica, Pepco’s vice president for corporate communications.

So the company launched an effort to improve service — and keep customers informed. That marketing campaign, which Mattavous-Frye said Pepco officials told her cost $2.3 million, presented a brighter image of the utility than many customers have experienced in recent days, Berliner said.

“When you are at the bottom, as Pepco has been, you have nowhere to go but up,” he said. “So far on this one, it’s not looking good. Is theirs still fundamentally a system that was neglected for many years, and has that neglect made them more vulnerable? Absolutely.

Deborah Brody, a marketing strategist in Rockville who fled town Sunday to escape her sweltering home after two days in the dark, said Pepco “keeps saying they are working hard, working hard. They’re working hard to spend money on advertising. You can’t let your message get ahead of the facts on the ground.”

“They’re concerned because they’re one of the most hated companies in the country,” Mattavous-Frye said. “But this is absurd. These outages have become a ritual.”

The money Pepco spends on advertising comes not from ratepayers but from shareholders, Monica said.

Pepco Region President Thomas Graham has acknowledged on his blog that some customers believe “Pepco’s Reliability Enhancement Program is only a PR campaign” — and that “Pepco blames everything on trees” — but he and other executives say they can prove that reliability metrics are substantially better than they were two years ago.

Maryland’s people’s counsel, Paula Carmody, said it is too soon to say whether Pepco has made real improvements. Maryland’s Public Service Commission fined the utility $1 million last year for failing to fix problems that have led to frequent outages.

Carmody said it is clear that Pepco has “continuing communications issues — lots of confusion.”

The communications issue drawing the most customer complaints is what Pepco calls its “global restoration time” — the 11 p.m. Friday time the company gives to customers without power.

“Their global estimated time is driving people nuts,” Berliner said. “They’re punting because they don’t want to be held accountable if they give a specific time.”

Maryland is considering requiring Pepco to give customers more specific estimates, Carmody said. Gausman said the company does not provide street-specific restoration estimates until it has surveyed all damage, which takes a couple of days. Starting on Wednesday, he said, Pepco plans to give customers more meaningful estimates.

Marc Fisher, a senior editor, writes about most anything. He’s been The Post’s enterprise editor, local columnist and Berlin bureau chief, and he’s covered politics, education, pop culture, and much else in three decades on the Metro, Style, National and Foreign desks.
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