Pepco's customers were right: Utility is falling down on the job

The Washington Post's Robert McCartney discusses his column on customer dissatisfaction with Pepco's response to recent storm-related power outages.
By Robert McCartney
Thursday, August 19, 2010

For years, Pepco customers have suspected that their electric utility was worse than average when it came to power outages. Their friends and neighbors with other power companies didn't seem to lose the juice so often.

For years, Pepco insisted instead it was just an unlucky victim of Mother Nature and of selfish tree-lovers who wouldn't let the company do necessary trimming to protect overhead wires.

Now it turns out the customers were right all along: Pepco is at the bottom of the class when it comes to frequency of power losses. What's more, Pepco has known about the problem since at least 2005 and has been too cheap or lazy to correct it.

Meanwhile, the Maryland state commission that allegedly regulates the utility has paid inadequate attention to Pepco's poor reliability while going right ahead with approving rate increases.

Happily, in an authentic victory for grass-roots civic activism, the climate of opinion surrounding Pepco has changed dramatically in response to the widespread outages that followed thunderstorms this summer and blizzards last winter. Letters from furious customers have forced politicians and the Public Service Commission to demand answers and talk about imposing penalties if Pepco doesn't improve.

It's important to keep up the pressure, because people's outrage tends to evaporate pretty quickly once their televisions and refrigerators are back on.

The numerous maladies besetting Pepco and its regulators were on vivid display at Tuesday's hearing in Baltimore, where utility executives went before the five-person PSC. I thought one exchange nicely captured two of Pepco's most important problems -- lack of foresight and lack of accountability.

The subject was Pepco's computerized telephone response system, which failed so completely in the first days following the July 25 storm that it mistakenly told some customers they wouldn't get their power back until September.

In retrospect, Pepco said, it should have switched off part of the system as soon as the storm hit, because it couldn't handle the call volume properly.

Ponder that. Relish the irony. The system didn't work precisely because there was so much need for it.

PSC Chairman Doug Nazarian was incredulous: "You're saying the mistake here is that you didn't turn off your system fast enough?" It seemed "colossally silly," he said.

Mike Sullivan, senior vice president of operations, was blase. "Technology has limits," he said. He promised the system will get an "enhancement" that would automatically shut down the troublesome portion when too many calls pour in, and return it to service only when it's ready to give people accurate information.

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