Pepco didn't spend all of its D.C. tree-trimming funds in recent years, data show

Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 11, 2011

Pepco did not spend all the money it had budgeted for tree trimming in the District over most of the past seven years, according to company data, even as it cited trees as a main cause of outages, particularly during storms.

Details of the spending surfaced in a hearing Thursday before District utility regulators, the latest in a series of regional sessions called by officials, who have chastised the company for its response to the Jan. 26 snowstorm, which left many customers without power for days.

Last year, the company picked up the pace of trimming, the records show. But since 2004, Pepco funding for District tree trimming has been "declining or static," as described by Betty Ann Kane, chairwoman of the Public Service Commission. In four years, the company did not spend the budget it had allotted to the task - at times by several hundred thousand dollars - records requested by the commission show.

The records Pepco submitted do not include trimming done as part of larger capital projects, which would ramp up the amount spent, said David Velazquez, executive vice president for power delivery of Pepco Holdings, the utility's parent.

But, he said, "it is clear to us that we have not been as aggressive as we should" and that more vigorous trimming like that begun this summer is planned.

The trimming change is part of a previously announced package to enhance reliability that Pepco has said also would include equipment upgrades. An investigation by The Washington Post in December showed that by far, Pepco equipment failures, not trees, caused the most sustained power interruptions in 2009.

Equipment upgrades to improve the lines that feed customers in Shepherd Park and the Chevy Chase section of the District are underway, Pepco officials testified Thursday. The company also has tentatively identified three areas in the city for moving power lines underground. It did not identify those sites, pending a more in-depth review on whether moving the lines is feasible.

About 32,000 District customers were without service at the peak of outages after the Jan. 26 storm, with about 74 percent getting power back within 24 hours, according to Pepco testimony. About 210,000 Pepco customers lost power in the storm, company spokesmen have said.

Velazquez said the company will look at changes to "more efficiently dispatch restoration crews." He faced intensive questions from commission member Richard Morgan about the speed and scope of Pepco's mustering of restoration teams.

Company officers pledged again to improve overall service and reliability and apologized to customers, saying they understood the disappointment.

The session before District regulators came after meetings with elected officials in Annapolis and in Montgomery and Prince George's counties.

The commission was already weighing whether to add or revise reliability standards for Pepco and is awaiting recommendations expected in May from a review group that includes its staff, Pepco representatives and the Office of People's Counsel, which represents consumer interests.

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