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Maryland Public Service Commission to investigate Pepco reliability shortfalls

By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 17, 2010

After a succession of huge power outages this summer, and an eruption of customer fury, Pepco officials are scheduled to be on the hot seat Tuesday morning in Baltimore where Maryland's Public Service Commission wants to ask the question: Why?

The five-member commission, which regulates utilities and sets utility rates in the state, announced last Thursday that it was launching an official investigation -- case number 9240 -- into Pepco's recent apparent failures.

The commission said almost half a million people have been affected by power outages just in the past month.

"Because of the frequency, number and duration of the power outages . . . and the apparent breakdown of adequate communication between the company and its customers . . . the Commission finds it necessary to conduct an immediate investigation into the reliability of the Pepco distribution system and the quality of distribution service," the agency said in announcing its probe.

The commission, which is appointed by the governor, has summoned, among others, the utility's chief operating officer; its senior officers responsible for system reliability, construction and maintenance; and the senior officers responsible for storm restoration, customer service and customer communications.

They have been instructed to appear at 9:30 a.m. in the commission's hearing room on the 16th floor of the William Donald Schaefer Tower, at 6 Saint Paul St.

Pepco said in an e-mailed statement that it would present a report on the outages and would participate fully in all parts of the investigation.

Bryan Moorhouse, special counsel to commission Chairman Douglas R. M. Nazarian, said he did not know how long the hearing would last. "As long as it needs to," he said Monday. "I think it's going to take a little while."

Moorhouse said the hearing would be just the start of the probe. "I'm sure there's going to be more to come," he said.

Pepco, which provides electricity to 778,000 homes and businesses in the District and the Maryland suburbs, has been under fire since last winter's snowstorms knocked out power to tens of thousands in the area for days. The commission is also investigating those outages, and a final report is pending, Moorhouse said.

Public anger flared again after a series of violent summer thunderstorms took out power to tens of thousands of people on July 27, Aug. 5 and Aug. 12.

There was widespread anguish at the repeated outages, the seemingly long delays in restoring power and the collapse of Pepco's public communications system. After the July 27 storm, the utility's Web site crashed and its public phone messaging system gave out wildly inaccurate information -- in some cases telling callers their power would be out for weeks.

The commission's action comes after Gov. Martin O'Malley (D), who is running for reelection, wrote to the chairman on Aug. 6 urging an investigation.

"Customers deserve a prompt review of Pepco's handling of these outages, as well as a more comprehensive examination of Pepco's storm preparedness," O'Malley wrote. "Pepco's customers, like all of our citizens, deserve a reliable electric supply."

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