Page 5 of 5   <      

Washington Post analysis: Why Pepco can't keep the lights on

Chart tracking Pepco power outages.
SOURCE: Pepco | The Washington Post - December 5, 2010

"I was very lucky to make it through," she said. The outage "was nearly the death of me."

Tree canopy debate

Whenever they are asked to explain the outages, Pepco executives talk first about the trees.

At an August hearing, Gausman was asked why Pepco's reliability rated poorly. Gausman responded: "The largest amount of outages from a frequency standpoint are tree-related."

But Pepco's internal records show that in 2009 the company's workers identified equipment failures as the most common cause of outages, accounting for 44 percent. That was a 24-point increase over the previous year.

Michael W. Maxwell, Pepco Holdings' vice president for asset management, said in an interview that the spike was partly because of an effort to cut the number of outages attributed to "unknown" causes.

By comparison, the company blamed trees for just 24 percent of outages, a five-point drop from 2008. Trees do play a part in most outages during major storms.

In official filings in the District, Pepco has told regulators that its service area includes the "fourth most dense tree canopy in America." And in Maryland, it told regulators that Washington is "the fourth highest ranked major metropolitan city in tree cover." It is an assertion Pepco executives have made time and again. A Pepco chart attributes the information used in the ranking to studies by the U.S. Forest Service.

"I know it does sound like a broken record," Gausman told Maryland regulators at the August hearing.

But Forest Service officials who conducted the studies cited by Pepco - and who are specifically named in the company's charts - disagree.

"I definitely wouldn't say D.C. was fourth in the nation," said David Nowak, lead author of five of the seven studies cited by Pepco. "D.C. is around the national average for tree cover."

Nowak and other Forest Service experts said they discourage outsiders from using their data to rank cities. Their studies cover different time periods, use a variety of methods, survey varying terrains and do not include all cities, they said.

The figures quoted in Pepco's chart do not match those in the most recent Forest Service studies, they said. And even if the numbers did match, Pepco's figures draw on studies of the District only, they said, and not the Maryland suburbs where the company has the most outages.

A 2009 tree study by the University of Vermont, which federal officials described as the most comprehensive to date, also concluded that Washington's canopy was similar to that of other metropolitan areas, and that it was sparser than those in many small cities and suburban communities.

The report's author, geospatial analyst Jarlath O'Neil-Dunne, questioned linking canopies to power disruptions.

"I can't think of a direct correlation," he said. "Vermont is 80 percent forested. If trees were the cause of power outages, we would have no power here. And we seem to do pretty well."

In Pepco's ranking, the major cities listed as having the densest tree cover are Charlotte, Atlanta and Portland, Ore. Data from power companies in those cities show that they have outperformed Pepco in frequency and duration of day-to-day sustained outages in recent years.

Forester Mike Galvin of the nonprofit group Casey Trees charged that Pepco has turned vegetation into a convenient villain.

"It's a lot easier and cheaper to say trees are bad" than to upgrade equipment, he said.

Asked about the chart, Gausman did not dispute the experts' statements. Pepco did not discuss the ranking with the Forest Service or any other public agency and did not try to independently confirm its conclusions.

"We did a search, and this is the information that we found," Gausman said. "It was all just done through an Internet search."

He added that Pepco executives "absolutely agree with the Forest Service" about the difficulty in compiling a reliable ranking.

To be sure, Maryland and some local municipalities, such as Takoma Park, have strong laws protecting trees. In the District, authorities struggle with the legacy of now-disavowed 1960s policies that allowed trees to grow around and between power lines, said Earl Eutsler, supervisory forester for the District.

Gausman said those issues have made it especially challenging to keep limbs away from wires.

Storm outages

It is difficult to make comparisons among companies based on outages caused by hurricanes, blizzards and other major storms. Storm intensity varies, and each community presents unique challenges based on terrain and the percentage of power lines underground.

Even so, utilities regularly report details on major storm outages to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Those reports raise questions about Pepco's ability to respond quickly to major outages, compared with its neighbors. The Post analyzed data from six storm-related outages at Pepco that also affected Dominion Virginia and BGE.

The Washington region's three primary power providers have similar percentages of aboveground and underground lines. Pepco has buried 56 percent of its lines, BGE has buried 62 percent and Dominion Virginia has 58 percent of its lines in Northern Virginia underground (versus 38 percent systemwide).

Most memorable among the storms was this year's Snowmageddon, which brought more than two feet of snow to Montgomery County and shut down the region for days. Pepco lost power to almost 98,000 customers at the storm's height, in an outage that began at 7 p.m. Feb. 5, and did not fully restore service for about a week, federal data show.

Dominion, which serves about three times as many customers in Virginia and parts of North Carolina, lost power to 105,000 customers in an outage that began seven hours later and was declared resolved after about 29 hours.

In other words, Dominion's service stayed active longer and was fully restored more quickly - even though roughly the same number of customers were affected. BGE did not report a major outage.

Those figures are reinforced by a study by the Maryland Office of People's Counsel, an agency that represents consumers. The study found that during the storms in February, Pepco customers suffered the longest outages among customers of the six biggest power companies serving Maryland.

Pepco outages averaged 13.6 hours. Other companies had average outages of about six to eight hours; BGE customers suffered interruptions averaging 8.1 hours.

Transparency and accuracy

In interviews after the summer's outages, Pepco executives stressed their desire to be open and accountable to the public.

"We want there to be transparency in the process," Graham, the Pepco Region president, said after an August news conference in Cabin John, where workers trimmed trees in view of television cameras.

A month later, when the company responded to an order to disclose reliability data to Maryland regulators, it did not send the material to their offices. Instead, it placed much of the information on a password-protected portion of the Pepco Web site, saying the volume of material made that a better option. Pepco later agreed to supply The Post with non-confidential portions of the documents.

Difficulty securing solid data from Pepco has long frustrated the D.C. Office of the People's Counsel. Analysts at the independent agency recently discovered that the number of interruptions that Pepco reported in its monthly disclosures did not match those listed in its annual report. Gausman explained in an interview that "there was a mistake," which has since been corrected.

The District People's Counsel discovered a similar problem with feeders. Pepco reported conflicting figures, listing 750 feeder lines in its 2009 report and 806 feeders the following year. "It is questionable that Pepco established 56 new feeders in the course of one year," a report from the People's Counsel said. Once again, Pepco executives said they had made a filing error.

In 2009, the D.C. People's Counsel hired independent consultants to examine Pepco, resulting in a scathing report. The consultants said obtaining information from Pepco was "extremely difficult." Pepco executives delayed, made minimal disclosures and, when they did respond, did so "never in a clear or transparent manner," the report said.

The consultants said they found numerous discrepancies in Pepco's data, indicating that something was "seriously awry" and that the company's dismal reliability record could actually be understating the extent of its problems.

To truly improve, the report said, Pepco should set detailed plans including timetables and deadlines. Otherwise, there is no way to determine whether the company is succeeding, it said.

"Pepco appears to be only committed to performing the minimum required to meet regulations, directives and the law," the report said. "They exhibit no desire to excel."

Pepco officials vigorously disputed the consultant's conclusions, saying reliability is a chief priority.

While the reliability debate continues, Howard Hartmeyer, co-owner of J & H Power Equipment in Crofton, is watching his business thrive. He says generator sales, primarily to homes in Pepco's service area, have jumped 60 percent since June, crowding out all other work at his family-run company. His biggest seller is a natural gas generator that costs about $9,400 installed and can power an entire house. It is a favorite of elderly homeowners on oxygen, who fear being stranded.

"It's a safety thing," Hartmeyer said from a work site in Bethesda. "Out here, everyone's had enough of Pepco."

Staff researcher Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.

<                5

© 2010 The Washington Post Company