Regulation and more openness are needed to improve Pepco service

James Moore, working for a Pepco contractor, removes debris from power lines in Rock Creek Park.
James Moore, working for a Pepco contractor, removes debris from power lines in Rock Creek Park. (Juana Arias For The Washington Post)
Tuesday, August 24, 2010

IN THE WAKE of recent storms, more than 300,000 Pepco customers in Maryland experienced power outages, some spending days without power. After the thunderstorms came a storm of complaints, provoking hearings, reform proposals and statements from everyone from the governor to the Maryland Public Service Commission.

Pepco cannot be held accountable for extreme weather, and it may be true, as the utility has said, that it is not possible to restore power to nearly half a million people in 24 hours. Even so, the numbers are grim. Pepco ranks in the bottom 25 percent of utility companies, based on criteria that measure day-to-day reliability. Although company officials say that the frequent disruptions indicate that the system is working well -- power shuts off if lines are hit by unknown objects and does not switch back on until they are cleared -- the disruptions are also the result of an aging infrastructure frequently overburdened in an era when so many devices need to be plugged in.

Demands on Pepco's energy delivery system are not likely to decrease. The company, working with its customers, must do more to ensure that service remains at acceptable levels.

Stepping up regulation is one answer. Given Pepco's monopoly status within its region, it should be held to reasonable standards of performance. Proposed legislation would set more stringent standards and create a mechanism to hold Pepco accountable, requiring additional reporting and imposing a penalty in the event service falls below a minimum standard. Perhaps Pepco will take such accountability-building steps on its own. But any such measures must acknowledge the cost of improving service and determine ways of paying for it.

Pepco's recently announced six-point plan will resolve some day-to-day issues. Improved technology, including smart meters, for which Pepco has already received federal funds, will help confine power losses to a smaller area. But Pepco's plan will not be fully implemented until 2015.

Pepco estimates that approximately 90 percent of the disruptions in the most recent storm were caused by branches falling from trees, and says that that 75 percent of these trees were privately owned. Tree owners must be willing to work with Pepco, either agreeing to sensible pruning or contributing to the cost of placing lines out of harm's way.

Meanwhile, placing lines underground -- and thus out of the way of trees and wind -- can cost anywhere from $3.5 million to $11 million per mile. Because economic activity can be derailed by outages, some customers may be willing to pay more for upgrades in quality of service. Transparency and communication will be essential for Pepco and its customers to determine what level of service meets demands without unreasonably burdening ratepayers.

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