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Bethesda residents criticize Pepco over numerous power outages

By Rick Rojas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 9, 2010

The Promenade in Bethesda bills itself as easy living in one of the toniest parts of town. Two 18-story towers feature a health club and a concierge. Residents can get a medical checkup or their teeth cleaned without leaving the building.

The only thing the Promenade can't seem to provide with any consistency is lights.

The building falls in a swath of the region that loses power when it snows. Or when it rains. Or sometimes when the weather does absolutely nothing.

Since March, the Promenade has had 12 outages. Pepco, which services the building, says the Bethesda area where the building is located and portions of Northwest Washington fall into an area where there is "load creep," which means new development and new customers nearby are placing a strain on the power company's infrastructure.

But that is little consolation to the residents of the Promenade, where a quarter of the occupants are senior citizens, during a summer that has brought "hotter than Hades" record temperatures, said community manager Carl Hyde.

Even before the thunderstorms hit Thursday, Helma Goldmark, a longtime resident and secretary of the cooperative's board, reported a brownout that lasted several hours. The lights were dim and the air conditioners out.

Michael Maxwell, Pepco's vice president for asset management, said increases in the load on the power grid by construction and new development had led the utility to evaluate what additional stress has been placed on its infrastructure.

That incremental creep has local residents and officials pushing for Pepco to move swiftly in reinforcing and replacing what they see as a lagging system. By the time the July 26 storm hit, customers in the area had little sympathy for Pepco.

Montgomery County Council member Roger Berliner (D-Potomac-Bethesda) said that storm was "the accumulation of these frustrations." His constituents have been calling him, complaining of frequent phantom outages that occur seemingly without reason. Berliner said he has seen it at his home in Potomac, where it seems he loses power "when a cloud goes by."

"We're experiencing way too many outages, even on beautiful days," he said. "Setting aside acts of God, reliability is not meeting customer expectations -- and, quite frankly, my own."

Berliner sent a letter to the state regulator overseeing Pepco, the Maryland Public Service Commission (PSC), asking the agency to investigate Pepco's infrastructure in the region. Goldmark said she wrote a letter to the commission before the July storm complaining that the outages have been deleterious to the building's older residents, as well as the doctors and other professionals who have had to close shop during outages.

"The frequency of the outages is frustrating, lessens the quality of life for our residents, and is detrimental to the health and well-being of occupants," Goldmark wrote. "Our residents are entitled to be advised why these outages are so frequent and what steps can be taken to limit them."

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