by Katie Pohlman
Special to The Gazette
With hurricane season started, Pepco officials said the utility is ready for Mother Nature.
“The key is for all of us to be prepared,” Pepco Region President Thomas Graham said. He described the utility’s new technology and tree-trimming efforts in advance of the season’s storms.
But one Pepco critic said it is highly unlikely that the company is ready to weather another major storm.
The repairs and replacements needed to improve reliability will take years, said Abbe Milstein, founder of Powerupmontco, an organization that serves as a voice for Pepco customers who are unhappy with their service and the utility’s reliability rating.
“There just is not enough time to fix the system before the storm season begins,” Milstein said.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association says the 2013 season, which began June 1, will be an active one with seven to 11 hurricanes.
In preparation, Pepco has developed a new mobile application and recently updated its website to aid customers in reporting outages and tracking restoration progress throughout the area, Graham said.
The utility is also in the process of installing Smart Meters, which will record energy use and send the data to crews on the street or to a central location. The utility would be able to track outages more easily, theoretically reducing the number of trips Pepco’s service trucks will take to survey outage areas.
“(The meters) will reduce the time customers are out of service because we will not have to send trucks out to locations unnecessarily,” Graham said.
He said the utility has also added more emergency response personnel and linemen, and has trimmed more than 5,800 miles of trees in the past three years. Pepco, however, was required to complete the tree trimming as part of a fine that the Maryland Public Service Commission issued in 2010.
Before the fine, the utility had severely cut finances and the frequency of its Vegetation Management Program. Pepco’s current tree trimming efforts will provide four years of clearance throughout its coverage area, said Courtney Nogas, regional communications director for Pepco.
But that will not solve all of Pepco’s problems, Arlene Bruhn said. Bruhn is a board member for Conservation Montgomery, a nonprofit organization that aims at maintaining Montgomery County’s current quality of life and natural resources for future generations.
“You cannot prune your way to power,” she said.
Bruhn said Pepco’s haphazard tree-trimming efforts help prevent power outages only 50 percent of the time. The subcontractors Pepco hires have a general pruning plan that does not account for different species’ needs, effectively killing some trees.
In the end, tree trimming will prevent outages from occurring during rain and snow, but when strong winds are added to the mix, even a healthy tree could fall. The only real solution to Pepco’s problem, Bruhn said, is to bury the wires.
“As long as there are trees in existence, we will have power outages,” she said.
According to Chris Voss, director of the county’s Office of Emergency Management, progress is still progress. He said the improvements Pepco has made are a good start and customers should not expect Pepco to vastly improve its services overnight.
“As a customer and resident of Montgomery County, I want Pepco to be the best company out there,” he said. “But they have a budget and that limits them.”
All of these improvements are part of Pepco’s Reliability Enhancement Plan, which is the utility’s biggest reliability effort in history. From 2011 to 2012, the number of outages dropped by 39 percent and outages that did occur were 42 percent shorter, according to Pepco’s website.
But this improvement comes with a price. Pepco also announced that it is looking to invest $2.9 billion over the next five years in future projects, money that would be made accessible through rate increases.
The utility asked the PSC for a $60.8 million increase this year, which will be decided on by July 12. The company requested $68 million in 2011, but the PSC decided to only give the utility $18 million, Pepco said in a statement that the rate adjustments they have filed for will go toward investments that “are necessary to provide safe and reliable service to customers.”
Asking for ratepayers to pay the utility back for tasks required by the PSC is an absurd request, Milstein said.
“Pepco should only receive from ratepayers what they need to get their reliability ratings to a highly reliable level of service and no more,” she said.
Even with all its improvements and future investments, Pepco admits there is no way to fully protect their systems and service from major storms. All the utility can do is prepare the best it can.
“We have done a lot to prepare, but no amount of preparation can significantly harden an overhead system against a storm like last summer’s derecho, which provided little warning and caused massive destruction across 10 states in the mid-Atlantic, impacting well over 4 million utility customers,” Nogas said.