Maryland officials are skeptical of Pepco's plan to deal with future outages

By Annys Shin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 21, 2010; B01

Public officials in Maryland who have sharply criticized Pepco's response to storms are questioning the effectiveness of the utility company's new plan to reduce the frequency and duration of power outages.

Pepco, under fire for power outages during winter and summer storms, on Thursday released a plan that it expects to implement over five years at a cost of $256.3 million.

The six-point reliability plan includes more tree trimming -- part of what Pepco refers to as "enhanced vegetation management" -- the replacement of some underground cables and selective changes to substations. Long-standing programs, such as evaluating the need to upgrade feeder lines, make up much of the plan, which would expand on some of those efforts, such as upgrading underground cables.

The two major initiatives involve placing selected wires underground and changing substation supply lines.

"Putting an entire circuit underground is cost prohibitive, but if you can identify the portion of the line that is contributing to the largest problem and underground that section, you gain benefits for everyone on that circuit," said Bill Gausman, a senior Pepco executive who helped draft the plan. The utility also plans to identify whether supply lines to substations need to be altered or moved to better protect them from tree damage, Gausman said.

Elected officials have given the plan a cool reception.

"The overarching difficulty with the plan is we don't know where it gets us," said Montgomery County Council member Roger Berliner (D-Potomac-Bethesda).

Shaun Adamec, a spokesman for Gov. Martin O'Malley (D), welcomed the effort, but he expressed doubt that Pepco would deliver on its promises without pressure from regulators.

"The Public Service Commission still has to make sure they hold up their end of the bargain," Adamec said.

Officials for the Maryland Public Service Commission did not returned phone messages seeking comment Friday.

At a hearing Tuesday before Maryland regulators, Pepco officials defended their response to major service disruptions. They said 90 percent of recent outages were caused by branches falling from trees on private property whose owners often fail to give access to Pepco tree-trimming crews. They also disclosed that the company has reliability issues not related to severe storms. They said Pepco had placed in the bottom 25 percent among companies ranked using two reliability measures of day-to-day service.

"The real issue is they are at the bottom percentile on outages when the sun is shining," said Montgomery County Council President Nancy Floreen (D-At Large).

Gausman said Pepco has always strived to identify the worst-performing lines and to improve them. "They do improve," he said. "[But] they are not improving enough, to our customers' satisfaction," and the new plan entails "more aggressive action."

The Public Service Commission has scheduled a public hearing on Pepco's reliability Monday evening.

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