July 7, 2012

A FEW WEEKS before the June 29 storm that roared through the Washington area, Pepco issued a news release with this bullish headline: “Reliability Efforts Starting to Pay Off.”

If only. The communique trumpeted a steady march of progress toward the Holy Grail of electrical dependability for Pepco’s 780,000 customers in the Washington area. It stressed that the company, starting in September 2010, had embarked on a multibillion-dollar campaign to trim trees, replace cable and upgrade infrastructure along thousands of miles of its power lines in suburban Maryland and the District. It noted that both the number and duration of power outages in 2011 marked a sharp improvement over 2010, when Snowmageddon brought the region to its knees.

However, nothing in the release or in several other, similarly upbeat recent statements hinted at this region’s ongoing susceptibility to costly, catastrophic and prolonged power failures of the sort residents have just experienced. Either Pepco has failed to level with the public, or it is actively hoodwinking itself. Either way, its customers are the losers.

We single out Pepco not only because of its sluggish response after the recent storm — and its inexcusably spotty communications — but also because of its woeful record in maintaining and restoring service following earlier storms. No matter how often the company proclaims progress, the essential facts remain: A record of severe underinvestment, starting in the 2000s, contributed to a network that remains highly vulnerable.

It’s fine for Pepco to spread the word that it is making efforts to rectify and repair an anemic system. But by dwelling on a meaningless statistical accounting — trees trimmed along 3,500 miles of power lines; 125 advanced switches installed; 340 miles of underground lines upgraded; 120 overhead power lines enhanced — the company has aped the folly of U.S. forces in Vietnam, which mistook the enemy’s body count for a march toward victory.

This year Pepco said that it had overhauled its ability to estimate accurate restoration times. It said that it had doubled the phone lines into its customer service center. It said that it had created a new senior position, customer advocate, and named a veteran utility regulator to fill it.

That all sounded encouraging. But the reality in the aftermath of the June 29 storm is that the company punted on providing accurate restoration times, saying little more than that most customers’ power would be restored within a week. Most of those who lost power were not able to gain useful information from the customer service center. And aside from reflecting Pepco’s determination to burnish its image, there’s no evidence that establishing the position of customer advocate has made the company any more responsive to actual rate payers.

Rep. Chris Van Hollen, a Democrat who represents parts of suburban Maryland hit by the power outages, says that he will demand answers about why service was knocked out to so many Pepco customers for so long. In particular, he said, he will delve into how Pepco stacked up against other power providers in the region — a comparison that company officials have characterized as unfair.

In fact, a comparison of various utilities’ performance — crews deployed, restoration times and communications — would provide far more useful data than the fog of statistics Pepco has promulgated in the past.