A whopper of a Freudian slip by a top Pepco official at a public hearing in Rockville Thursday unwittingly revealed the electric utility’s true attitude toward its customers, which is one of barely concealed contempt.
Pepco’s principal media personality, the ubiquitous Tom Graham, told the Montgomery County Council that it was “obviously” not reasonable for people “to be upset that they’re out of service for a week or more.”
Graham’s comment drew jeers from an audience packed with long-suffering Pepco customers.
When council President Roger Berliner (D-Potomac-Bethesda) graciously invited him to correct the statement, Graham doubled down instead. He insisted that it was “not reasonable for a person to be upset at all” after seven days without lights or air conditioning.
Twenty minutes later, Graham tried to repair the damage. He said he’d misread his own statement. Twice.
But the spirit of the mangled comments was confirmed elsewhere, albeit subtly, in declarations by Graham and other Pepco executives. Their consistent message: If you don’t like losing electricity for a week after a severe storm, especially an unexpected one, well, that’s just too bad. That’s the best that we or any utility can do. So it’s irrational to get upset.
Have more repair crews available? More or smarter tree-trimming beforehand? Improve communications? Update equipment so it’s easier to fix or doesn’t break in the first place?
“It’s not clear what can be done,” said Graham, whose formal title is regional president. “I don’t know how we could have more resources available.”
That position is both highly questionable and shamefully defeatist. I’m dubious partly because a damning initial study by the office of U.S. Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) found that across the Potomac, Virginia Dominion Power was quicker to restore service than Pepco.
Same region, same storm, but faster repairs in Northern Virginia. Maybe Pepco should ask Dominion for advice.
(Note to customers of Dominion, Baltimore Gas and Electric and other area utilities: I’m not excusing those companies’ considerable problems. It’s just that Pepco seems consistently to do worse.)
Pepco is also giving up too easily. It stresses that its much-advertised investments in reliability, adopted under public pressure, cannot be expected to reduce outages in storms, but only in routine, day-to-day service.
In other words, Pepco says there’s no room for improvement at just the times when the region cares most about getting its power back. That doesn’t sit well with residents tired of hearing the usual excuses about supposedly unusual weather.
“We understand high winds and extreme weather events. But our residents have been through this time and time and time again. … We want meaningful solutions,” council member Nancy Floreen (D-At Large) said.
The gloom from Thursday’s testimony lifted a bit on Friday with a tough move against Pepco by Maryland regulators. In a rate hike decision, the state Public Service Commission did not give Pepco a penny more than the regulators found to be legally required.
Now, I appreciate the frustration that customers (like me) feel over Pepco’s receiving any rate increase at all. The hike will cost the typical residential household about $2 a month.
However, that shouldn’t distract us from the importance of the regulators’ action. In particular, the commission punished the folks who really matter, Pepco’s shareholders. It did so by cutting one-half percentage point from the utility’s permitted return on equity, which is closely related to what Pepco can pay in stock dividends.
Wall Street doesn’t like seeing precious shareholders suffer because of anything so trivial as an electric utility’s failure to give customers reliable service. The change might finally get Pepco’s attention.
Still, it could take years of such financial pressure to transform Pepco’s corporate culture. This is a company whose unresponsiveness has deep roots.
“The problem is Pepco. It’s the values of the company. It’s the management of the company,” said council member Hans Riemer (D-At Large).
Even if Pepco thinks it’s “not reasonable” to do so, we customers are going to remain plenty upset until real improvements materialize.
For previous columns by Robert McCartney, go to washingtonpost.com/mccartney.