Pepco takes heat for storm recovery in Montgomery

July 19, 2012

A day after the violent June 29 storm left hundreds of thousands of people without power, Dominion Power had 3,000 line crews out to turn on the lights. Pepco had 1,000. By then, Dominion had fixed 120,000 outages; Pepco, 13,000.

Those figures were featured in a report compiled by the office of Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and released Thursday ahead of a Montgomery County Council hearing on Pepco’s storm response.

In a strongly worded letter to Council President Roger Berliner (D-Potomac-Bethesda), Van Hollen said that Pepco, which has been criticized many times for its performance after severe weather, continues to fail its customers.

“This is obviously part of a persistent pattern of underperformance,” Van Hollen said in an interview.

Joining about 30 other Maryland officials, Van Hollen urged the Maryland Public Service Commission to reject a 4 percent rate increase proposal by Pepco that would raise the average residential bill by $5.50. Commission chair Douglas R.M. Nazarian said Thursday that the ruling will be released on Friday.

Attached to Van Hollen’s letter was an analysis of publicly available utility data that his office recently collected. According to his analysis, Pepco had at most 3,000 crews working, while Dominion had 5,600.

Dominion had to deal with double the amount of outages Pepco had — 900,000 to 443,000 — but within four days, each had about the same number of outages. During that time, Dominion fixed 760,000 cases; Pepco, 332,000.

Pepco President Thomas H. Graham told reporters after the council hearing that it is “difficult” to compare the two companies, especially because they cover different areas and are of different sizes. Dominion covers 2.4 million customers, while Pepco covers about 790,000.

Pepco officials emphasized that they have improved their infrastructure, and the commission said it has improved its reliability standards. But their testimony didn’t allay people’s concerns.

Early in his testimony, Graham outraged some residents when he testified:

“I say to myself, ‘Is it reasonable for an individual to be upset that they’re out of service for a week or more?’ Obviously the answer is no.”

Audience members started yelling. Berliner offered Graham a chance to “rewind” his statement.

“It’s not reasonable for a person to be upset at all,” Graham said more assertively, to more yelling. “[But] we expect them to be upset.”

Fifteen minutes later, he asked to speak again: “I need a mulligan,” he said. “I completely understand the frustration of the customers who have been out of service. . . . It’s been a long two weeks for me, and I’m just not reading [my statement] correctly, so my apologies.”

During his testimony, Nazarian alarmed some county officials when he said he didn’t know whether climate change exists. County Council member Hans Riemer (D-At Large) said Nazarian shouldn’t be regulating utility companies if he doesn’t believe in climate change.

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