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Top Pepco executive vows to enhance utility's reliability

Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, February 8, 2011; 10:10 PM

In his first public appearance since the January snowstorm that left hundreds of thousands of Washington area residents without power, Pepco's top executive said the company's response was "not acceptable, and we're going to fix it."

Pepco Chairman Joseph Rigby told Maryland legislators in Annapolis on Tuesday that he would forgo as much as $900,000 in compensation and that he aims to speed up by at least a year a long-term plan to improve reliability by more aggressively updating antiquated equipment and trimming trees.

In an attempt to rehabilitate the company's image, Rigby, who earns a base salary of $880,000, said he would not take a raise or bonus this year.

"It's not the right thing to do," he said of accepting more compensation, leaning forward on his elbows as he addressed the House Economic Matters Committee.

Legislators from Montgomery County, an area hit hard by the outages, expressed skepticism about the company's commitment to enhancing reliability and vented their frustration over the inability of constituents to get timely and up-to-date information about when power would be restored.

Del. Benjamin F. Kramer (D-Montgomery) described having to empty his refrigerator three times in recent years because of extended outages.

"I'm not a fan," Kramer said, faulting the company's public relations and customer service. "It seems there is no connection between the customer and the call centers, assuming they can actually speak to a human being."

Pepco customers were left in the dark for up to five days after the Jan. 26 snowstorm. During that time, more than 220,000 Pepco customers were without power, including 180,000 in Maryland.

Several legislators pressed Rigby about whether customers would have to pay more than they otherwise would have to help the company recoup outage-related losses. In a system designed to encourage energy conservation, Pepco is authorized to raise rates temporarily to recover money lost when electricity use drops and to lower rates when customers use more.

Critics have said the billing system in Maryland removes any incentive for the utility to quickly restore service when the power goes out.

In his remarks, Rigby stressed that the company has every incentive to restore power after a storm. He estimated that the response to the most recent storm cost more than $10 million.

"I'm disturbed by the impression that we're not incented to restore power," Rigby said. "We want to get through this as fast as we can."

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