But forestry experts — including those cited in Pepco reports — told me in 2010 that the D.C. region’s tree canopy is about average. As my Washington Post colleague Mary Pat Flaherty and I reported, in the few cities that Pepco said had a denser canopy than the District, the local electric companies did a better job of keeping the power flowing. That suggests that a lack of pruning, not the number of trees, may be to blame.
In addition, Pepco’s reliability ratings began dropping in 2005, a period during which internal company reports show that spending on tree trimming and other vegetation management remained “relatively stagnant or decreased.”
Detailed outage statistics add another piece to the puzzle. Although Pepco executives have publicly stated in the past that most outages were “tree-related,” company records show that in 2009, equipment failures — not trees — were an even bigger source of blackouts, accounting for 44 percent. By comparison, the internal records blamed trees for just 24 percent of outages.
2. If it weren’t for extreme weather, power service would be fine.
No electrical system can be made immune to 75-mile-per-hour winds or a major ice storm. That’s what Pepco executives stress, and it may be true enough. But industry records show that Pepco has trouble keeping the lights on during tranquil days as well.
When stormy days are excluded, records show that in 2009, Pepco’s customers experienced 70 percent more power failures than customers of other big-city utilities that took part in one major survey. And when the lights blinked out for Pepco customers, they tended to stay out more than twice as long.
Pepco ranked at or near the bottom compared with other major power companies that took part in indexing surveys.
3. Pepco’s outages are reasonable, given the size of the storms.
Company executives say it’s difficult to make comparisons among utilities based on power failures caused by hurricanes, blizzards and other major storms. Storm intensity varies, and each community presents unique challenges based on terrain and the percentage of power lines underground. Even so, storm performance reports filed with the federal government raise questions about Pepco’s response.
Most memorable among those past events was the “Snowmageddon” storm in 2010 that dumped more than two feet of snow and shut down the region for days.
Almost 98,000 Pepco customers lost power at the storm’s height, in an outage that began on the evening of Feb. 5. The company did not fully restore service for about a week. Meanwhile, Dominion Virginia Power, which serves about three times as many customers in Virginia and parts of North Carolina, lost power to 105,000 customers in an outage that began seven hours after Pepco’s and was declared resolved after about 29 hours.