The blackouts that left hundreds of thousands of Washington area power customers shivering angrily in the dark this year often dragged on for days because the utility companies failed to cooperate with each other, Maryland regulators said yesterday.
The Maryland Public Service Commission ordered a series of changes in the way utilities do business after issuing a 72-page report on a series of blackouts, including one after a January ice storm that left more than 400,000 Washington area residents without power for as many as six days.
The commission said it was "particularly troubled" by a lack of cooperation among utilities that delayed restoration of power, and it criticized the companies for failing to have "meaningful and timely communication" with their customers during outages.
It gave the utilities until the end of January to file plans for how they will comply with the order.
"Certainly we think they set forth a rigorous and demanding schedule," said Darcel Kimble, of Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. "Our intent is to work with them to meet our customer expectations."
The commission said it also wants to examine whether staff reductions at Maryland utilities in anticipation of impending competition have affected service during outages. At the time of the ice storm, Potomac Electric Power Co. had reduced staff 30 percent over the past three years. The commission wants a report on staff levels by March.
The report, ordered by Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D), ends a three-month investigation into the way utilities responded to four prolonged power outages caused by severe weather--the January ice storm, the July heat wave and two September hurricanes. Glendening ordered the review after Hurricane Floyd left more than 490,000 BGE customers without power for as long as a week.
After the hurricane, some local utilities did not share extra repair crews with neighboring companies because they were never asked for help. Utility officials say it falls on the company that needs crews to ask for them, but the commission wants better coordination among local utilities to ensure that it does not happen again.
"Although the commission recognizes that personnel resources were stretched under these circumstances," the report said, "it finds the lack of cooperation unacceptable."
Many of those left without power after Hurricane Floyd were in the Washington region, but the area was hit even harder Jan. 14, when an ice storm toppled trees and collapsed power lines throughout the Washington suburbs. More than 400,000 Pepco customers were left in the dark for as long as six days, prompting a chorus of accusations that the company did not respond quickly enough.
The utilities said the severe storms wrought broad damage and hampered repair in the ensuing days. The commission said that it "recognizes that the major events under review were--to some extent--extraordinary events.
"Yet this commission is required by law to ensure that a safe, reliable system continues to exist," the report said. "Although Pepco and BGE have expressed some shortcomings and expressed their intention to make certain improvements, the commission believes that in order to fulfill its mandate, further action is necessary."
Much of the criticism centered on the customer service operation that, during the power outage, was bombarded with calls. Pepco phone lines were frequently busy, and, in many cases, customer service agents were unable to tell callers when repairs would be made in their neighborhoods.
In advance of the commission report, Pepco has spent "tens of millions of dollars" overhauling its customer-service system and strengthening its 300 miles of power lines and substations to limit future damage during storms, company officials said yesterday.
In this month's power bill, Pepco customers will receive details about a new phone system that can handle 100,000 calls an hour and virtually eliminates busy signals--the bane of many customers in January. The company said it has tripled the number of phone lines into its call center, and now customers will receive an estimated time of repair when they call in.
Kimble said BGE formed a committee after Hurricane Floyd to determine how to ensure a faster response. She said the company has added staff to the customer service call center.
Pepco, which started its internal review earlier than BGE, has embarked on a three-year plan to install computer terminals in repair trucks so customer service agents can track their progress. After the ice storm, many customers complained that Pepco gave them inaccurate information that kept them waiting in cold houses for hours.
The company said it is also installing new technology at each of its substations that will speed repairs by guiding crews to problem spots.
"We are now spending more money on information technology, like smart relays to improve reliability, than on the traditional copper, cable and concrete," said Nancy Moses, a spokeswoman for Pepco, which is selling off its power-generating assets to focus on distribution. "Customers have told us they wanted to make reporting power outages more convenient."