4. Burying power lines is a clear solution.
A two-year-old study commissioned by District regulators found that burying all overhead lines in the city would cost $5.8 billion. The work would take years to complete and would be a major disruption. Costs in Montgomery County might add an additional $4 billion. The result would be a big increase in customers’ monthly bills, perhaps hundreds of dollars.
And burying lines in selected neighborhoods wouldn’t necessarily solve the problem. Overhead lines that deliver power to particular areas could still be taken down by an ice storm. When problems eventually did occur in a buried line, it could take twice as long for crews to find and then fix them.
Despite all that, officials say they are looking into whether it would be cost-effective to bury more feeders, the major distribution lines that reach into neighborhoods. In the District, almost 80 percent of high-voltage lines are underground. In Maryland, only 57 percent are.
5. Fining Pepco will improve service.
In the wake of a public outcry and a Washington Post investigation, District regulators tightened performance standards for Pepco last year, threatening to fine the company unless it improved reliability within two years and matched the performance of the nation’s most dependable power providers within a decade. Not to be left behind, Maryland regulators in December fined Pepco $1 million — the largest penalty in the public service commission’s 102-year history.
That should take care of the problem, right? Maybe not. At the time of the fine, Pepco’s parent, Pepco Holdings, took about a day and a half to earn $1 million, according to company filings. The previous year, Pepco Holdings paid out more than $240 million in dividends.
Pepco executives say fines are unproductive, because the company is already motivated to improve. Pepco has spent heavily on hardening its wires and trimming trees over the past two years, and executives say they have internal data showing that the work has enhanced reliability. Improving service, they say, is their top priority.
So far, though, no one is offering the company a pat on the back. As D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) said last week: “People are fed up with power outages.”
Joe Stephens is an investigative reporter for The Washington Post.
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