Pepco Customers Tell PSC Tales of Feeling Powerless After June Derecho
Days without power, air conditioning or answers had customers at a hearing on Tuesday calling for changes to the utility—and to the panel that regulates it.
Bearing photos, frustration and rage, wry humor, harrowing tales of surviving record heat and even poetry, Montgomery County residents railed against Pepco for more than four hours Tuesday night during a hearing before members of the state’s Public Service Commission.
The hearing in Rockville was the first of eight that state utility regulators have scheduled around the state to hear from the public about power companies’ performance after the June 29 derecho.
The storm left 483,639 Pepco customers without power, including 252,018 in Montgomery County and 158,210 in Prince George’s, the utility reported last month. About 150 of those customers attended Tuesday's hearing.
Among those who testified was a multiple sclerosis sufferer who said he and his wife ran up four days of hotel and meal expenses as they sought relief from triple-digit temperatures, which exacerbated his condition.
Other testimony came from Stacy Small-Lorenz who said she lost a three-day supply of breast milk for her 6-month-old baby and was forced to travel to Ohio to stay with family after being without power for six days.
Also among the speakers were several past and present elected officials who offered recommendations for overhauling Pepco.
“The derecho is only the latest in a string of outages, from ongoing blue sky outages to the more catastrophic hurricanes, ice storms and snowpocalypses of the last 10 years,” former Rockville Mayor Susan Hoffmann testified. “These outages have continued to chip away at any possible reservoir of goodwill that we, as consumers, might have had for our electric companies.”
Hoffmann called for the Public Service Commission to “step up” and to consider adding three additional members, including two “lay people” to represent customers and a representative from one of the state’s smaller electric companies.
PSC Chairman Douglas R. M. Nazarian and commissioners Lawrence Brenner and W. Kevin Hughes attended Tuesday’s hearing. Commissioners Harold D. Williams and Kelly Speakes-Backman were absent.
“While each of you has a fine resume, some of you even come from the world of public utilities, perhaps you are too close to the issue, know too much, in fact, and may have unwittingly become apologists for the very utilities you regulate,” Hoffmann said. “Whatever the reason, Maryland needs a more responsive Public Service Commission.”
Robert Hydorn, president of the Montgomery Village Foundation Board of Directors, testified that even with underground power lines, Montgomery Village had neighborhoods of more than 1,000 homes that were without power from the night of the storm on Friday, June 29, until the following Friday afternoon.
“Pepco has had to over the years—instead of paying whatever salaries they’re paying and bonuses they’re paying—invest in the infrastructure,” Hydorn said.
Pepco must stop extending the power grid, “whether it be Clarksburg, or over off [Route] 29 or new developments and high-rises on Rockville Pike,” Hydorn said. “That is all drawing off an antiquated infrastructure of grids.”
Marnie Shaul read a letter from the council of the Town of Somerset in Chevy Chase, of which she is vice president. The council made several recommendations, including reviewing Pepco’s communications technology, requiring that problematic power lines be buried and using fines against Pepco to establish a “surge reserve” corps of additionally trained service crews to respond to outages—a plan proposed by Senators Brian E. Frosh (D-Dist. 16) of Bethesda and James C. Rosapepe (D-Dist. 21) of College Park.
Lynn Board, the Gaithersburg city attorney, spoke on behalf of the Gaithersburg mayor and City Council, which were attending National Night Out festivities.
Board said the city was concerned about communication, including the lack of accurate information, which made it difficult for the city to identify residents still without power amid unhealthy hot temperatures. Adding to the frustration, Board said, were residents who were told by Pepco that power had been restored to their neighborhood when it had not.
Testimony from residents included photos and poetry.
Judith Koenick of Chevy Chase presented photos of trees that were left with odd shapes after pruning by Pepco.
“I don’t think you can find any arborist who is worth his or her grain of salt that can tell you that this is how you trim a tree,” she said, holding up three photos of trimmed trees that left audience members with a view chuckling.
C. Ellis of Potomac called himself “Ellis in Wonderland” and read a poem about being without power.
“Montgomery County is a nice place to be/Unless you like electricity,” he recited.
Ellis prefaced his testimony by saying that he grew up in England after World War II. “We had bomb craters, but we had power,” he said. “My wife grew up in the former Soviet Union. They had communism, but they had power."
Customers expressed frustration about poor customer service during the outages and bafflement at how Pepco was recently granted a rate increase.
In July, the PSC approved $18 million of a $68 million rate increase requested by Pepco. The increase will mean a $2.02 increase (1.69 percent) to the typical residential monthly bill.
Ed Levine of Bethesda was one of several speakers to question why Pepco received any rate increase.
He also criticized a “bill stabilization” adjustment that allows utilities to collect billings for the first 24 hours after a power outage, effectively charging customers for power when they have none.
“How do you charge me for the six-and-a-half days that I didn’t have power?” Levine said.
Pepco revenue was down 17 percent in the second quarter of 2012, down 17 percent from a year ago, Washington Business Journal reported. That’s even before factoring in the June 29 storm, which won’t hit the utility’s bottom line until the third quarter, the Business Journal reported.
The utility’s revenue was $1.2 billion for the quarter, with $62 million net income, down from $94 million a year ago, the Business Journal reported. Pepco cited higher expenses for the losses.
The problem of restoration is that as Pepco’s system has grown, its workforce of line crews has not, said James Griffin, president of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 1900, which represents 1,150 Pepco employees.
Griffin said he is the fourth consecutive IBEW Local 1900 president to report concerns about understaffing of line mechanics. He cited an October 1999 report to the PSC in which he said Pepco reported deploying 312 crews after a June 1996 storm and 318 after Hurricane Floyd in 1999.
“These were Pepco crews, not contractors,” Griffin said. Since then, Pepco has tried to supplement its own crews with out-of-state contractors who come and go, don’t know the system and sometimes take several days to arrive.
In April, Pepco had 123 line mechanics and 21 trainees, Griffin said.
“Very simply, had there been an adequate number of Pepco line mechanics available today, compared to years past, Pepco would’ve been able to start repairing more of this storm’s damage sooner,” he said.
Andrew Kavounis, an 87-year-old World War II veteran, said the answer is not “beating to death” Pepco.
“What we should be concerned about is what’s wrong, not who’s wrong,” Kavounis said.
The biggest problem is the trees, he said, adding that only dwarf trees should be planted near power lines. Most people haven’t focused on such problems, he said.
“We haven’t established what’s wrong,” he said. “We’ve only said how much we’ve hurt.”