Power outages: Pepco spokesman with the latest

 Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett surveyed storm damage at home of Martha Lufkin who lives at corner of Blossom & Azalea.   The tree that fell in their yard barely missed the house and car.
Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett surveyed storm damage at home of Martha Lufkin who lives at corner of Blossom & Azalea. The tree that fell in their yard barely missed the house and car. (Susan Biddle - for The Washington Post )

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Mike Sullivan
Pepco Sr. VP for Operations
Tuesday, July 27, 2010; 1:00 PM

Outages remain widespread across the Washington region Tuesday morning as crews work to repair toppled utility poles and lines. Pepco officials said that it could be Thursday before all power is restored.

The Breaking News Blog: Pepco: Power back to most by Thursday

Mike Sullivan, senior VP of Pepco operations, was online Tuesday, July 27, at 1 p.m. ET with the latest news, updates and advisories regarding the power outages.

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Mike Sullivan: Hi, this is Mike Sullivan, Senior Vice President of Operations for Pepco Holdings. I'm happy to answer your questions today.

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Silver Spring, Md.: The duration of this power outage in addition to the power outage during the winter snowstorms calls into question the infrastructure of Pepco's power lines. I lived in much more severe weather in Norway for 7 years and never once had a power outage, although all power lines where I lived were underground. What plans does Pepco have to improve the infrastructure of our power lines to prevent this type of ongoing problem whenever we have a storm? Is placing power lines underground an option being considered?

Mike Sullivan: Undergrounding power lines has been analyzed numerous times over the years. This is a very expensive and disruptive undertaking. Current estimates range from $5,000,000 to $8,000,000 per mile to underground. Additionally, undergrounding often kills trees because of root disruption.

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North Bethesda, Md.: Pepco's always saying the problem is trees. Well, my power lines are buried. But my power's been off since the storm. And half of my townhouse development came back on yesterday afternoon. So if it's not fallen trees, what IS the problem?

Mike Sullivan: Very few power lines are underground from substation to customer. Your outage is likely upstream from your house on an overhead line - that's where the problem is. Depending on when the townhouse community was built, often times customers on one side of the street are on a different feeder line than customers on the other side.

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Silver Spring, Md.: No power in the Colesville area of Silver Spring (20904)since Sunday. We had power in my neighborhood throughout the snow storms and hurricanes, and barely a day without power during those ice storms 10 years ago - yet this storm only lasted about 15 minutes. Why?!

Mike Sullivan: The intensity and direction of all storms are different. This storm had gusts up to 90mph in some areas. Also, the tree canopy changes over time. The ground conditions are also a factor. The bottom line is that every storm is different.

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Bethesda, Md.: Why is full restoration taking so long? I understand the conditions of the blizzard made your repairs much more difficult and timely. But for my community, it has now been close to 48 hours without power. There are no weather conditions hampering your efforts, so what is going on?

Mike Sullivan: Our ability to restore customers is a function of the weather conditions we are working in, but also the severity of the damage we are dealing with. As a reference point, we have 778,000 customers and over 300,000 were without power following the storm. Within 10 minutes of the storm entering our system we secured additional resources to the closest utility to us. Given the path of the storm, the closest utility that was willing to dedicate resources was in Ohio. Considering travel time, those resources began assisting us this morning. We expect to make significant progress today.

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Washington, D.C.: This was a pretty severe storm and given the summer heat with no power and A/C, should be considered a state of emergency. Are we looking into bringing power company experts outside to the region to held with restoring power?

Mike Sullivan: We have brought resources in from Ohio, Pennsylvania, Delaware and New Jersey to assist in the restoration process.

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Bethesda, Md.: I live in Carderock Springs and have been trying to get an update on when power will be returned to my neighborhood. In 2003, we were out of power for almost 10 days, and I'm hoping that this isn't going to be the same situation. Can you shed any light on when power will be returned here? I have been looking on the Pepco web site, but there isn't any specific information.

Mike Sullivan: We expect the large majority of our customers to be restored by Thursday and will be providing more detailed estimation restoration times after 3pm today. Call 1-877-PEPCO-62 to check on your restoration estimate.

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Rockville, Md.: Why has Pepco been so secretive when giving out information? Peoples' lives have been greatly affected these last 3 days and Pepco has at best sounded vague and worst sounded like they were dodging the question whenever I've called or read statements in the paper. Please don't bother responding to this question if you're just going to give another canned response that doesn't answer the question at all and gives no specifics.

Mike Sullivan: It is not our intention to be vague. The fact is, it takes a long time to assess storm damage of this magnitude. We hope we can provide more detailed estimates for customers after 3pm today. Again, please call 1-877-PEPCO-62 to find out your specific estimated time of restoration.

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Tivoli Development Silver Spring, Md.: Mr. Sullivan, I cannot understand why 48 hours after losing power all I am told on your Web site or by phone is that the situation in my development is under review. I cannot understand why you have not assessed ALL outages by now -- how else can you prioritize? I wondered this as I tried to sleep in the heat the last two nights, and as my wife and I threw out over $250 of spoiled foods from our refrigerator and freezer. Can you explain why you are still assessing things?

Mike Sullivan: Assessing damage for a storm of this magnitude is very complicated and time consuming. We had over 1,580 reported wires down and over 190 feeders that were out of service. These feeders can be in excess of a mile long each, and have numerous branches extending through numerous neighborhoods. Our only way of identifying trouble spots is through patrolling and through customer reporting. We regret the fact that customers have lost perishable goods and will continue to work around the clock to restore power.

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Anonymous: When will power be restored to Bethesda's central business district? This is the second business day we have been unable to operate our small business in Bethesda.

Mike Sullivan: We encourage customers to call 1-877-PEPCO-62 for more detailed restoration estimates after 3pm today.

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Washington, D.C.: Are there any reliable figures on what it would cost to put all current D.C. overhead power lines underground?

Mike Sullivan: Estimates vary. In some cases $5,000,000 to $8,000,000 per mile - but in other cases, estimates can be as high as $15,000,000 per mile.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Why aren't the trees trimmed on a regular basis?

Thanks

Mike Sullivan: The trees are trimmed on a regular basis. In many cases, our lines are down as a result of completely toppled trees, not just fallen branches or debris. More often than not, these trees are on private property and we are not granted permission to trim them. Washington has the third heaviest tree canopy in the country.

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Chevy Chase, Md.: Why are there so many power lines that are running through trees? In our area, literally every road has power lines that run through large tree branches, many looking like they are almost supporting the trees. Couldn't much of this be avoided by a better attempt at preventative maintenance of trees? Is this your (Pepco's responsibility) or is it Montgomery County's? Either way, it should be a much higher priority.

Mike Sullivan: We work closely with Montgomery County to trim trees in public space. Again, many of the trees that cause outages are on private property. The V-cuts you see in trees are an attempt to clear power lines and respect the wishes of the homeowners not to have the trees removed completely.

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Aspen Hill, Md.: What are the other local energy suppliers (BGE, for example) doing correctly so that their customers are not experiencing multiple day outages due to this storm?

Can PEPCO imitate these best practices for their customers?

Mike Sullivan: As I previously mentioned, the tree canopy in northern Washington and Montgomery County is the third heaviest in the country. In addition to that, for reasons I can't completely explain, historically storms often travel the same path through our area - time after time.

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Bethesda, Md.: Why is BG and E down to 1100 outages and we still have 125,000 in our area? Why such a disparity when the storms hit Howard County and Baltimore just as hard?

Mike Sullivan: The storm did not hit Baltimore as hard as it hit the Washington area. The heart of the storm began in Gaithersburg and traveled through central Montgomery County, through the District of Columbia into Prince George's County and then passed through Annapolis. BGE had approximately 100,000 out, while Pepco had approximately 300,000 out of service.

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Bethesda, Md.: "Mike Sullivan: It is not our intention to be vague. The fact is, it takes a long time to assess storm damage of this magnitude."

How much of the assessment relies on trained eyes driving to failure locations? How much can PEPCO determine remotely via telemetry? Can PEPCO combine what know from their systems and the data from customers reporting outages into action plans with some level of automation?

Even if we assume that PEPCO is doing its absolute best -- the best that could be done -- the process is opaque and the then the responses come off as vague.

Mike Sullivan:

We currently have automation up to our substations. We have no telemetry beyond that. We rely on customer calls as our primary intelligence for identifying outages. We have plans to install intelligent meters that will provide that telemetry or that outage status to us without a customer call. We will begin installing these meters in the District of Columbia at the end of this year and approval for this technology is pending with the MD Public Service Commission.

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Hyattsville, Md.: Why were the Pepco lines all ringing busy or, if it were to connect, why did the recording loop continuously? We could not speak with an representative until after 9:30 p.m. and that was after waiting out the recording for 20 minutes. We started calling at 3:40 p.m.

Mike Sullivan: Our telephone system has the capacity to answer 100,000 calls an hour. Regrettably, our call volume exceeded that just after the storm went through our service territory. This was exacerbated by the fact that many customers were opting to speak with a live representative. While I completely understand that customers prefer to speak to a live person, the most efficient and timely way for customers to report an outage and for us to process this report is through our automated system.

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Rockville, Md.: All of my neighbors came back online yesterday evening, leaving only 4 houses without power. How are works being prioritized? geographically? by number of customers?

I am concerned that we remaining houses on the street will now be a low priority.

Mike Sullivan: The bottom line is that restoring all customers is our priority. Having said that, our restoration process does involve first dealing with life-threatening situations and then the largest blocks of customers we can restore at a time. The lines that feed power to you and your neighbors often come from different sources. Call us after 3pm today for a more specific estimated time of restoration for your home.

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Mike Sullivan: Thank you for the opportunity to chat with you today. I recognize the inconvenience and hardship these extended outages are causing our customers, and appreciate your patience. Our job will not be done until each customer is restored.

Until then, please consider all downed wires as live and report them to us as soon as possible. If you are using a generator, please do so carefully. Do not use it indoors and follow the manufacturer's instructions. Be safe, and thank you again.

-Mike Sullivan

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