Residents and a Howard County Council member who were among those pressing for state action on complaints about power outages in several neighborhoods say they're pleased that the Maryland Public Service Commission is ordering BGE to improve service.
"They're holding BGE's feet to the fire on a remediation plan," said Cathy Eshmont, a resident of the Dunloggin area of Ellicott City who organized an effort to petition the commission for a hearing.
While BGE has assured residents that it was following a plan to improve service in any case, Eshmont said now they have to do so or risk penalties.
"Now it's in the order," she said, referring to a 20-page decision released by the commission Sept. 9. She said the community has for years endured frequent power failures affecting thousands of people, some of the outages lasting for days and not always in major storms.
BGE spokeswoman Rachael L. Lighty said the utility is "pleased with the findings of the PSC order, as the PSC adopted much of BGE's original work plan," including a Dec. 31, 2014, deadline for completing it.
"BGE looks forward to continuing its work with its customers, local community leaders and the PSC," she said.
Maryann Maher of the Font Hill neighborhood said the order gives her confidence her that improvements will be made.
"We see it as a small victory," said Maher, who was active in pursuing the complaint before the PSC. "We have a guarantee that the work will be done."
County Councilwoman Courtney Watson, who was involved in engaging the county as a party to the residents' case — and bringing a separate county complaint — also said she was pleased with the ruling.
"It's a victory for the people in a lot of ways," said Watson, of Ellicott City, although she acknowledged that there's still work to do. "We believe we haven't won the battle yet, but we're making progress."
All three said they were pleased the commission rejected BGE's request to dismiss the case altogether, and that the agency is ordering the utility to complete its work plan.
The commission also ordered BGE to report back on its progress, including how well the power lines are performing, and survey residents every year on their satisfaction.
Lighty said the work plan includes more tree and brush trimming around power lines, burying some lines and installing more automatic switching to keep power flowing when outages occur.
Under the order, BGE has until the end of next year to complete the work on 14 "feeders," or circuits, that were the focus of one phase of this case brought by Eshmont's organization, Reliability4HoCo.
The county complaint — involving 33 other "feeders" — is scheduled to be considered by the commission next year and is not part of this order.
Each feeder serves about 1,000 customer meters. The two complaints together represent 47 feeders, more than a third of nearly 120,000 BGE customers in Howard.
The commission sets a penalty of up to $25,000 a day, or part of a day, for failing to comply with an order, said Regina L. Davis, a spokeswoman for the agency.
The commission didn't find that BGE violated any laws or regulations, but its investigation "revealed that some of the feeders did have significant reliability issues, particularly with regard to the duration of outages," the commission order said.
The order noted that power failures in these neighborhoods tend to last longer because the feeders are in wooded areas that are hard for repair crews to reach. Still, the report said, "we share the concerns of the Petitioners that topography alone should neither mask nor excuse other causes of poor feeder performance."
About 300 residents — mostly in the Dunloggin, Font Hill, Beaverbrook and St. Johns neighborhoods — signed the petitions last year to bring the complaint. That amount was roughly three times the number of signatures needed under state law to request a PSC hearing.
Eshmont said she mounted the effort after enduring years of power failures at her home near St. Johns Lane, where she's lived for 22 years. She said the last straw came in February 2011, when her power failed in a windstorm during the night after she brought her 87-year-old mother home from Howard County General Hospital for hospice care at home.
She recalled giving her mother morphine with an eye-dropper by the light of a flashlight. Eventually she called for an ambulance from Gilchrist Hospice Care in Towson, where her mother died the next day.
"This is where the passion comes from" for this cause, she said.
In September of that year, she started organizing Reliability4HoCo, putting up a Facebook page, testifying at council hearings and eventually pursuing the petition for a hearing with the Public Service Commission.
Eshmont and many of her neighbors say the power failures have cost them thousands in home generators, motel stays and food spoilage.