For the second time in less than a year, hundreds of thousands of Baltimore Gas & Electric and Pepco customers are being forced to endure a week or more without electricity because of damage caused by a severe storm. Utility officials are aggressively defending their response. They say the storm was unusually intense and that the companies' crews and those called in from others states are working hard to restore power. We're sure they are. But that is of little comfort to those who are coping with the logistical, financial and, potentially, safety consequences of doing without electricity during a prolonged heat wave. State regulators need to take a hard look at what the state's major utilities are doing to prepare their systems to weather severe storms, and they and company officials need to rethink a communications strategy that leaves customers in the dark in more ways than one.
A freak occurrence?
The storm that hit Maryland and much of the Mid-Atlantic on Friday night was an unusual weather pattern called a "derecho" that included strong lightning and high winds. Branches, and in many cases, whole trees, toppled onto power lines, and lightning strikes destroyed other electrical equipment. Unlike a hurricane, this storm did not allow for days of warning, so BGE and Pepco were not able to call in out-of-state repair crews in advance. All that unquestionably makes the utilities' job more difficult. What's more, the threat of severe weather has not completely abated since the initial storm. Some 12,000 BGE customers lost power after a new round of bad weather Sunday night.
But no matter how unusual the circumstances, the result, for hundreds of thousands of Marylanders, is all too familiar: Days on end without electricity and without good information about when it will be restored. Climate science suggests that global warming will make unusual and severe weather much more common, and we need to be sure that the regulated utilities that provide us with power are doing everything they can to mitigate its effects. Utility officials are calling this storm a freak occurrence, but they need to be prepared for the possibility that it wasn't.
Is it a given that a strong storm would cause this magnitude of damage to the electricity grid? Even without pursuing the extremely expensive option of burying all of the region's electrical lines, the utilities can and do take steps between bouts of severe weather to prevent outages. Tree trimming and replacement of old infrastructure — particularly in areas that have been shown to be vulnerable to previous storms — helps prevent outages.
One of the major concerns consumer advocates had about the recent purchase of BGE parent Constellation Energy by Chicago-based Exelon Corp. was whether the new management would invest sufficiently in such preventive maintenance. The worry that it might not was not abstract; a recent Public Service Commission investigation of Pepco found a years-long pattern of shirking such maintenance (curiously, at the same time that the company was paying its stockholders healthy dividends). The commission handed down a $1 million fine, its largest ever, for what it called a pattern of neglect.
BGE officials insist that they have been steadily increasing their preventive maintenance budget over the last several years, particularly through an aggressive tree-trimming program. Nonetheless, Maryland's Office of the People's Counsel requested a similar investigation of BGE after the days-long outages after Hurricane Irene, but the commission declined, saying it would focus instead on addressing reliability issues through long-awaited new regulations, which went into effect this spring.
The new regulations, enacted after prompting by the legislature, set minimum standards for tree trimming and other maintenance, which went into effect June 1, and for the speed with which utilities are supposed to restore service. Under normal conditions, they are now expected to restore power to 92 percent of customers who suffer an outage within eight hours. After a large storm that knocks out power to less than 50 percent of customers, utilities are now supposed to restore service to 95 percent of people within 50 hours. But in a major storm that knocks out power to more than 50 percent of customers — as this one did — the utilities are merely expected to restore power as quickly and safely as possible.
The commission needs to closely examine the utilities' performance to make sure they live up to that. BGE and Pepco will be required to file major outage event reports within three weeks. They (and the state's other utilities) are also required to file major event outage plans by the end of this month. The commission needs to examine those closely based on this event. In particular, it needs to look at the patterns of outages following Irene and this recent storm. How much overlap is there between those who suffered multi-day outages after the two events? Does that indicate weak points in the system that need to be addressed?
A failure to communicate
The new regulations also include standards for better communication. At least 75 percent of customers' calls are now expected to be answered within 30 seconds. But that doesn't begin to cover the shortcomings of the utilities' communications with those suffering from power failures. In a situation like this one — a days-long outage combined with extreme heat — those who lack power need to make rapid decisions about how to cope. That's especially true for those who are most vulnerable — the elderly, families with young children, the disabled and the ill. For them, the issue is not discomfort or losing some food in the refrigerator but determining whether their health, and in extreme cases, their lives, are put at risk by staying in their homes. It's not an easy decision, given that the alternative can be extremely costly, either in terms of a hotel bill, travel expenses or lost wages while away from home and unable to get to work.
Unfortunately, BGE has provided little useful information; most crucially, it is not routinely giving estimates for the time of service restoration for individual customers. In a blog post on bge.com, Jeannette M. Mills, the company's vice president for customer operations and chief customer officer, explains that the complicated nature of the damage caused by a storm like this one makes precise predictions difficult. As a result, they are reluctant to try for fear that they will "set unrealistic expectations for customers and compound disappointment and frustration."
Company officials say that as they work through the damage, they are able to provide more specific information to customers whose repairs are imminent, but generally only if they happen to call into BGE's automated phone system to request an update. They are seeking to employ some automated phone calls to provide customers with updates, but that is not the rule, and the practice is of limited use, since many of those who lack power aren't at home. The company has also posted lists of the neighborhoods where crews are working but with the caveat that it doesn't necessarily indicate that the lights will come on in those areas any time soon, or that the work in one place might not affect customers in another.
Mostly, the information the company has put out has been a steady stream of updates about how many thousands of customers have seen their power restored. That may sound good to company officials and politicians, but it's useless for customers. Those who are among the lucky no longer care, and those who lack power are liable to grow more resentful. Knowing that the power could come back on at any moment but also might not come back on for another week breeds tremendous frustration and anxiety.
The PSC recognized this in an order it issued after Hurricane Irene. It directed the utilities and the Office of the People's Counsel to form a work group to develop standards for providing customers with an estimated time of restoration: "The companies' inability to determine and communicate useful ETR information to customers, storm after storm, seems to compound the public's unhappiness with prolonged outages. People are mad enough about being without service and with the collateral impact that brings, such as spoiled food, lost water (for people on wells) or cold showers (for those on [electric hot] water systems), lost Internet and telephone service, and feelings of insecurity in their homes."
The work group met several times and issued a report in May. It found no industry standard for how to handle these matters and did not suggest one for Maryland, instead reiterating the utilites' commitment to communicate with their customers about the issue. The PSC also required the utilities to provide information about how they prioritize which customers to restore first, on the grounds that the public deserves much greater transparency. The utilities have submitted the information, but the commission hasn't yet done anything with it.
Restoring power to hundreds of thousands of people after a major storm is, no doubt, an imprecise business. But surely there is a happy middle ground that doesn't give customers false hope but does provide them with a sense of where they are in the queue. And in an age when communications technology is undergoing a revolution, BGE, Pepco and other utilities need to find much better ways to provide updates to individual consumers. As it is, the situation leaves thousands not only without power but also with a feeling of powerlessness.