Why Pepco can't keep the lights on

By Joe Stephens and Mary Pat Flaherty
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, December 5, 2010

In high-powered Washington, one of the world's most wired and connected metro areas, the region's leading electric company has trouble just keeping the lights on.

Pepco delivers power to 778,000 customers in the District and neighboring parts of Maryland, including some of the most affluent communities and most important institutions in the nation. But in reliability studies, the company ranks near the bottom in keeping the power on and bringing it back once it goes out, an analysis by The Washington Post has found.

In fact, the average Pepco customer experienced 70 percent more outages than customers of other big city utilities that took part in one 2009 survey. And the lights stayed out more than twice as long.

Pepco's reliability began declining five years ago, records show; company officials acknowledge that they have known of the problem but that they only started to focus on it more recently.

Moreover, Pepco has long blamed trees as a primary culprit for the frequency and duration of its outages, implying that the problem is beyond its control. But that explanation does not hold up under scrutiny, The Post analysis found. By far, Pepco equipment failures, not trees, caused the most sustained power interruptions last year.

Pepco says it is embarking on a five-year program to improve reliability.

Over the past year, storm outages have captured the attention of Pepco's customers and local politicians. Tens of thousands lost power for days after snowstorms in February and thunderstorms in July. Businesses closed; the frail headed to shelters; anger flared.

But Pepco's reliability problems are more pervasive. Some of Pepco's most disturbing failures come quietly on days with no violent weather, according to The Post's analysis of industry data, interviews with experts and a review of thousands of pages of documents.

In recent years, Pepco has placed near the bottom for daily reliability in surveys that compared power companies around the country. Pepco tends to have more sustained power interruptions, defined as those lasting longer than five minutes. And when the lights go dark, they tend to stay off longer. In one 2008 survey, Pepco finished last among participating utility companies on two of three reliability measurements, records filed with regulators show. Pepco stopped participating in that annual study after its last-place finish.

"These numbers tell me Pepco has been falling behind the industry," said Joydeep Mitra, a reliability specialist at the Institute of Public Utilities and a professor at Michigan State University. "It's about time they caught up."

Pepco's performance has deteriorated, even as delivering power to homes and businesses has become Pepco's primary business. Pepco now buys energy and then delivers it to homes and businesses on the company's distribution lines.

With winter approaching, when snow, ice, rain and wind exacerbate outages, there are questions about whether Pepco officials are more prepared than they have been in the past. Pepco officials say they are ready for what comes and have a multiyear plan for improving performance.

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