Utilities get grilled at PSC hearing
BALTIMORE - Unless utilities fundamentally change how they distribute energy, they won't be able to restore power to all customers within 24 hours after a hurricane-like storm, officials told Maryland regulators on Thursday.
Doug Nazarian, chairman of Maryland's Public Service Commission, asked how weeklong power outages could be avoided after major storms. After this summer's violent windstorm called a derecho, customers went as long as eight and a half days without power. Baltimore Gas and Electric officials said with improvements to protect power lines from trees and better work arrangements, a few days could be shaved off the wait.
Nazarian, however, said many people believe even a five-day power outage is unacceptable in modern times, and commissioners have been getting that message loud and clear at public meetings. The chairman didn't hold back in describing residents' outrage.
"In response to what you just said, I'm telling you, a lot of people who are in the evening hearing rooms would be getting their pitchforks and starting to head to your office in response to that," Nazarian said.
Kenneth DeFontes, president and chief executive officer of BGE, said utilities would have to redesign the system to make it less vulnerable to the elements. Putting power lines underground has been mentioned in recent months as a possibility to consider, although it would come at a high cost.
"If you want a different outcome then we're going to have to make a different deployment, and it's going to add costs significantly," DeFontes said.
DeFontes said positive changes could be made by putting some power lines underground, not all.
"I think it is very site specific," DeFontes said.
The CEO also said 24-hour power restoration after a storm like the one in late June isn't realistic.
"All I know is if you leave the system the way it is and you trim trees better and we do a better job of staffing and we do a better job of mutual assistance, it's still in my judgment unlikely that we will be able to have a hurricane or derecho event like the last two that we had and be able to restore all the service in 24 hours _ even if we did it better than any utility on the planet," DeFontes said. "The sheer volume of the amount of work that had to be done is inescapable."
DeFontes noted that the storm came with no warning. In comparison with power restoration after Hurricane Irene, BGE said it managed much better after making adjustments. The company said it restored power to about the same number of customers who lost power during Irene with no notice and about 1,000 fewer workers. Many of them were out-of-state utility workers who could not get to Maryland until two and a half days into the restoration effort, because they were working in other states that had been hammered by the storm.
Dave Velazquez, executive vice president of power deliver for the Potomac Electric Power Company, also said he didn't believe 24 hours was a realistic goal without big changes.
"In a hurricane-style event, unless we do something to fundamentally change the system, there's no utility that's going to be able to restore all their customers in 24 hours," Velazquez said.
Five power companies were scheduled to attend the PSC hearing, which was likely to extend into Friday. They include BGE, Pepco, the Southern Maryland Electric Cooperative, Delmarva Power and Light Company and the Choptank Electric Cooperative.
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