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Pepco defends post-storm efforts at hearing

Caution tape still clings to a light pole on Wexford Drive in Kensington after storms caused power outages by Pepco and other power companies.
Caution tape still clings to a light pole on Wexford Drive in Kensington after storms caused power outages by Pepco and other power companies. (Katherine Frey - The Washington Post)
By Joe Stephens and Aaron C. Davis
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, August 18, 2010

BALTIMORE -- A Pepco vice president told Maryland regulators on Tuesday that the company was "not terribly disappointed" with its response to recent storms that left nearly a half-million people in the dark, while another vice president disclosed that the utility ranked among the worst power providers in surveys of day-to-day reliability.

The disclosures came as anger mounted against the Washington region's largest power company, popping up in suburban cul-de-sacs, shopping centers and the Maryland governor's mansion. The criticism stemmed from what some complained was only the latest in a series of outages that followed storms and sometimes even a sunny day.

"Yes, there have been very severe thunderstorms, but in less-severe storms we're also seeing more outages in the Pepco area than we did before," Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) told reporters at a news conference outside the State House. "To pretend that this is all due to weather is not, I think, a responsible way to act."

Senior Pepco executives defended their performance during day-long questioning at a packed hearing held by the Maryland Public Service Commission, fending off questions from polite but at times disapproving commissioners.

"It's not going to be business as usual going forward," Commissioner Lawrence Brenner cautioned the executives. "We're going to come up with things to measure you by. And we're going to have to have consequences."

The executives repeatedly asserted that they responded well to a challenging and unpredictable situation but that they nonetheless plan to make improvements. They stressed that increasing reliability would increase costs but stopped short of saying they would seek a rate increase.

"We know it's been a very frustrating summer for our customers," said David Velazquez, Pepco's executive vice president for power delivery. "It's been a very frustrating summer for us as well."

"We responded properly."

Pepco officials suggested that customers' frustration stemmed from rising expectations. "The desire to have service restored quicker has increased," Velazquez said.

If the company fell short, he said, it was in not communicating adequately with its customers -- to let them know how long it would take to restore power and to educate them about the daunting challenges facing its crews. Pepco officials said the company had learned lessons from the storms and would trim trees, consider moving some stretches of power lines underground and reroute some circuits around trouble spots. It might take four years to make "overall" improvements in the system, they said.

Commission Chairman Doug Nazarian said his office has been deluged with complaints, some comparing Pepco's service to that in third-world countries, others alleging that their electricity failed whenever the wind kicked up. There is a widely held perception that Pepco is unprepared for storms and mobilizes slowly when they arrive, he said.

Commissioner Susanne Brogan asked Mike Sullivan, senior vice president of operations at Pepco, whether he had misspoken when he suggested that he was not disappointed by Pepco's response. Sullivan replied: "I think we did a reasonable job of restoring power. I'm not embarrassed by what we did."

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