After recent power failures, Md. officials slam Pepco at hearing on reliability

The Maryland Public Service Commission holds a hearing in Rockville, Md., for local officials and citizens to voice concerns about Pepco's reliability. The commission is launching an official investigation into the utility in response to numerous power outages that were caused in part by recent storms.
By Michael Laris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Even before an array of public officials began assailing Pepco Monday at a regulatory hearing, a central reality about trying to change the beleaguered utility was coming into focus:

If the excruciating days it took to restore power after this summer's storms felt long, the quest to fix Pepco's reliability problems for good may feel like a lifetime.

"There is a pervasive, systemic failure in our infrastructure," said Maryland House Majority Leader Kumar P. Barve (D-Montgomery). "I have relatives in Mumbai who cannot believe how often we lose power."

But, Barve added, "the degradation of our infrastructure didn't happen overnight. . . . My fear is a conscientious solution will take an equally long amount of time."

Barve was among nearly two dozen state, local and federal officials who signed up at a hearing in Rockville to register various levels of concern, frustration or ire at Pepco's performance after violent summer storms left hundreds of thousands of residents without power.

About 200 people filled the Montgomery County Council chamber, some shaking their heads in frustration as tales of the severe outages in the wealthy community were recounted.

Rockville resident Gail Willison said repeated outages, even "when it's sunny and pleasant," have left her angry and unsettled. Wasted food and a two-word text message -- "out again" -- have become mainstays.

"I've lived at this address for five years, and really it never occurred to me to ask, when I moved in, whether electricity came with the neighborhood," said Willison, who lives in the Rockshire neighborhood.

Members of Maryland's Public Service Commission called the session as part of an investigation it launched this month into Pepco's reliability. At an Aug. 17 session with PSC officials, Pepco executives disclosed that the company ranked in the bottom 25 percent on two measurements of everyday reliability. At the same time, the executives said they responded well to a difficult situation.

The commission has scheduled another public hearing Thursday night in Prince George's County.

But even the commission's effort to come up with a precise diagnosis of Pepco's shortcomings will probably take months, according to a plan laid out by the regulatory body.

The commission is working with Pepco to hire an independent consultant "to assess the Company's distribution service reliability as well as its performance before, during and after the recent outage events -- in comparison with similarly situated utilities," according to commission records. A session to discuss the investigation's progress is scheduled for October.

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