By Michael Laris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 31, 2010; B01
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.
Pepco has responded to criticisms with a beefed-up five-year plan, and sought to get ahead of Monday's barrage with a long list of ongoing and planned improvement projects. An 11-page document submitted Friday to Montgomery officials outlines numerous projects. A company spokeswoman said actions, not words, are what matters now.
"We recognize that an apology is not sufficient," Kim Watson, a Pepco vice president, told Montgomery officials. "We need to do better, and we are committed to making improvements both in our storm communications and in system reliability."
Still, some who testified noted that problems identified years ago had yet to be solved.
"Some similar issues were raised in 2003 after Hurricane Isabel. There were a number of recommendations then, some of which were enacted and some of which were not," Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) said in an interview.
One example of the lack of progress, Van Hollen said, was "the efforts to bring in help from out of state more quickly. Clearly that didn't happen this time."
Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) echoed this concern in his testimony to the commission.
"Pepco's contracting and operational procedures and practices for bringing additional resources to bear in emergency situations need reconsideration," Leggett testified.
In a "self assessment" of Pepco's performance after the July 25 storm, the company said the destructive weather appeared swiftly, "effectively depriving Pepco of the opportunity to engage in advanced planning to bring large numbers of outside resources to the Pepco service territory."
The self assessment said that despite that lack of notice, "additional company and contract crews were on duty within three hours; outside mutual assistance resources began arriving within 16 hours."
But Leggett and others also emphasized that the reliability problem goes beyond emergencies.
Leggett said he received three calls from constituents about power outages Sunday, "one of the most beautiful days you've ever seen."
Council member Duchy Trachtenberg (D-At Large) said she has lost power, at least briefly, 14 times in the past 10 months, complicating life for her family because power is needed for a breathing aid used by her husband.
"This county may sometimes be accused of overreacting," Leggett said. But that's not the case here, he said. "Enough is enough. We want action, not simply pieces of paper."
Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley and other officials have called for the commission to set and enforce reliability standards against which Pepco can be measured. State legislators said they would seek to pass new legislation if the commission failed to act swiftly.