How to make the utilities treat us better

Robert McCartney
Columnist July 7, 2012

Now that tempers have cooled as nearly all of us have our air conditioning back, can we please have a sensible discussion of what specifically should be done to force Pepco, Baltimore Gas and Electric and Dominion Virginia Power to treat us better next time?

We need to talk about it now while we still remember how furious we were when we realized we’d be facing a third, fourth or even eighth night in the dark. The electric utilities’ maddening performance recurs partly because our outrage wanes so quickly once we can watch cable again.

Robert McCartney’s column on local issues appears Thursdays and Sundays in The Post’s Metro section. View Archive

(I know I keep harping on this. It’s partly personal. I’ve been suffering through Pepco blackouts in Bethesda since I was in high school in the early 1970s. This time, we lost power for three days.)

Let’s save time at the start by discarding the idea of burying all the overhead power lines. It’s the first thing everybody proposes, and D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) dredged up the idea again after the June 29 derecho storm .

It’s not going to happen. It’s way too expensive, even for someone like me who usually favors big investments in public infrastructure.

Sure, we should put a few, selected power lines underground. It would be worth it for those that are particularly vulnerable to windblown trees or that serve an especially large number of people.

But the price tag to bury them all runs in the billions of dollars — nearly $6 billion for the District alone. Customers would bear the cost. That won’t fly in an era when the region’s legislators wring their hands over raising taxes by a fraction of that amount.

Instead, regulators should use fines, incentives and other pressures to ensure that utilities raise their effectiveness through less-expensive measures. Based on this recent experience, the following mix would make a difference:

●Get more help. This was the derecho’s No. 1 lesson. The biggest problem was the delay in bringing in repair crews from other states and Canada to pitch in.

The utilities argue, with some justification, that they couldn’t arrange for help earlier because forecasters didn’t give them advance warning, as typically happens before a hurricane or snowstorm.

But even after the urgent calls went out last Friday evening, there were plenty of complaints that the utilities hadn’t put enough boots on the ground.

One came from Fairfax County Supervisor John W. Foust (D-Dranesville), who was unhappy that his constituents in less-populated areas were a low priority on Dominion’s service-restoration list.

“A way to solve that problem is to bring in more resources. It’s especially important when it’s 95 degrees out and a large number of people are on [electric] wells and don’t have water, as well,” Foust said.

Several area leaders said utilities ought to have a larger number of repair workers on call locally, especially given that climate change means violent storms will probably become more frequent.

“We can’t rely on exchange agreements with other utilities. They need a big reserve of local technical people,” said Maryland Sen. James C. Rosapepe (D-Prince George’s).

Trim trees regularly, but consult with owners beforehand. This is the single most effective way to prevent outages. Pepco’s reliability dropped starting about 2005 in large part because it neglected what the utilities call “vegetation maintenance.”

The challenge is striking a balance between protecting electric wires and preserving nature’s beauty. Pepco has veered from one extreme to the other, as a recent round of aggressive trimming triggered a backlash among property owners in Montgomery County.

Dominion, which seems to handle this better, stresses the need to tell tree owners what’s going own.

“Our experience is customers want to understand why. If we spend the time and energy to explain why we’re trimming trees the way we do, more often than not, the rationale will carry the day,” said Rodney Blevins, vice president of distribution operations.

Fix the robo-call and Web site glitches. For many customers, one of the biggest annoyances was getting inaccurate information about when — or whether — their power had been restored.

Pepco, despite notorious problems with automated customer communication in the past, seemed again to have the most difficulties. There were numerous complaints that customers received calls saying their power was restored when in fact it was still out.

This is one arena where the Maryland Public Service Commission could come down hard on Pepco and others for the outages. Regulations that took effect in April tightened stand­­ards for utilities’ handling of customer communication in a crisis.

The regulators’ role is crucial in achieving any of this, of course. They’re the only ones with the power to compel the utilities to follow these suggestions.

Both Maryland and the District have recently set stricter standards and provided for higher fines, following utilities’ poor record in 2010 storms. But some politicians are skeptical that the regulators will follow through and demand improvement.

“The question is whether there’s an aggressive mission at [the Maryland commission] to regulate the utilities,” said Montgomery County Council member Hans Riemer (D-At Large).

The utilities have the means to perform better, without excessive cost. The public needs to ensure that the official watchdogs make it happen.

Robert McCartney is taking a one-week break. His column returns July 19. For his previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/mccartney.

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