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Pepco apology for power outages means little to angry officials (Video)

February 7, 2011 - 06:06 PM
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Today's Pepco apology did little to quell the frustrations of Montgomery County officials who spent the afternoon grilling the company's officials on the utility's poor performance.

“We’re tired of the excuses and TV and paper feel-good ads. It's time for performance and accountability," Councilman Roger Berliner (D-Dist. 1) said as he opened up today's committee hearing on Pepco's performance after the Jan. 26 storm.

Nearly everyone with major authority at Pepco, sans Chairman Joseph Rigby who penned the apology letter, was in attendance at a council committee hearing Monday (Rigby sent word he had a scheduling conflict). Executive vice president Dave Velázquez echoed the apology letter ("We recognize and are working on gaps we know we have to close and we’re not where we need to be in meeting customers’ expectations."). He then went on to explain how the utility is ramping up tree-trimming and investing in improving problem power lines, all part of the reliability improvement plan Pepco has been touting since last summer. The utility continues to promise its plan will get Pepco out of the bottom quartile for power companies in the state within five years.

“My problem is believing that you all are actually serious because you had measurements, ways of measuring your performance for years, and you’ve been at the bottom for years, and none of it motivated you to get out from the bottom," County Councilman Marc Elrich (D-At-large) said.

Ouch.

There is some proposed legislation on the table that would actually create state-mandated standards (because there aren't any now), and would slap Pepco with fines if they didn't meet said standards. But, at least as Pepco officials characterize it, such fines would do little to change their game plan.

"The legacy of this leadership will be to improve the reliability of our service to our customers. Are fines necessary? No, they are not because we already acknowledge there’s a gap and we need to fill that gap," said Pepco president Thomas Graham.

Part of improving reliability during major weather events is to trim trees, and Pepco trimmed back branches along miles of power lines over the past six months. About 56 percent of those lines that had power knocked out during bad storms in the summer remained intact during the Jan. 26 storm. But Councilwoman Nancy Floreen (D-At-large) pointed out that also meant 46 percent of lines that had trimmed branches lost power.

"That clearly wasn’t very successful," Floreen said.

"I think you have to compare that to the cost of if we had not done that work," Velázquez responded.

Berliner also couldn't get an answer as to just how much money could go into his proposed restitution fund, which would pay back Pepco customers who were charged extra to compensate for lost revenues during long term outages.

Today's meeting was nothing new really, and in reality, Montgomery County has little to no authority over Pepco. But hey, sometimes an airing of grievances gets out new information, or is at therapeutic in some way.

“It’s getting discouraging,” Floreen said. “We’ve had this conversation. It’s a Groundhog Day experience, isn’t it?”

So discouraging, it turned out, that the committee even asked an official with the American Public Power Association to talk about what's entailed with starting a publicly-owned utility company, one that would replace Pepco. Such a venture would be costly and may not even be possible, but the fact that councilmembers are even considering it only speaks to the seriousness of the hit Pepco's reputation has taken over the past year.

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