July 27, 2012

Montgomery County residents want a reliable, resilient and affordable electric system. We want adequate repair capacity on hand to restore power, not crews from Missouri after storms strike. We want preventative maintenance, not just repairs after outages. We want trees pruned properly, not scarred by wanton trimming. What we want isn’t complicated. But it is now clear, even facing the health emergencies, displaced families and productivity losses over a decade of outages, that Pepco has little interest in providing reliable electrical service for Montgomery County.

What do we do with this realization? Members of the County Council have openly discussed creating a publicly owned electric utility to replace Pepco. I agree. The only way to ensure reliable electrical service is public power — Montgomery County owning and operating its own electric system. With a utility controlled locally through elected government, we could set standards for reliability and environmental protection, ensure that there are adequate crews for emergencies, choose to move lines underground where it makes sense and even reduce electric rates. We could also hold the elected leaders running our utility accountable by voting them out of office if poor management leads to extensive outages — a fate Pepco executives do not have to worry about today.

According to the American Public Power Association, the service organization for more than 2,000 community-owned electric utilities, creating a public power utility in Maryland takes three steps: amending the county charter to allow it, gaining the Maryland Public Service Commission’s permission to operate and acquiring the electric lines from Pepco by condemnation. In practice, it takes many years for jurisdictions to complete such steps, requiring complex legal actions. But the groundwork for the first step — building support for public power — is straightforward: We just need to hold a charter amendment vote.

Therefore, I urge the council to begin a countywide discussion on creating a public power utility by initiating such a charter amendment vote for 2014. An amendment will provide a framework for action and, more important, harness public support. A successful vote will make it clear to local and state officials that Montgomery County residents want public power.

Between today and a charter vote, the county would need to conduct a feasibility study and legal analysis, using firms experienced with public electric utilities, to determine a public power system’s economic viability and to set a plan to create the utility. Concurrently, an education effort must be done to inform the community about public power — how a utility is created, the benefits of such a system and how the plan would move forward.

This education is critical. For instance, many people will assume a public power utility would be too expensive and would result in higher taxes, and opponents will be more than happy to encourage them to think so. However, the cost of acquiring the lines and setting up and operating the utility would be covered through the electric bills we already pay to Pepco, and money that now goes to pay dividends and executive salaries could instead pay for service improvements. Others simply will not believe a public power utility can be formed in Maryland, not knowing that our state already has five publicly owned systems; if Berlin, Easton, Hagerstown, Thurmont and Williamsport can do it, surely Montgomery County can, too. If the county fails to act, chartered cities, such as Takoma Park or Rockville, are large enough to create their own public systems.

Leading up to a vote, we could all learn about public power, create a plan for the new utility and make informed decisions about our electric future. Forming our utility would be a long process; taking on a wealthy corporation fighting for its livelihood would require strong community support to persevere. But we need to take a real first step to change our electric system. A true campaign to form a public power utility is the strongest message we can send to Pepco and the Maryland Public Service Commission that we are unwilling to accept the poor service we are getting.

The writer is the creator of the Web site Public Power in Montgomery County (mocopublicpower.org).