In the Dunloggin, Beaverbrook and Font Hill neighborhoods of Howard County, residents say they've spent thousands on home generators and on food to replace the stuff that spoils when the power goes out for days. There have also been other expenses, they say: motel stays, flashlights, lanterns, gas hot plates and long, heavy-duty extension cords — the kind used to hook up to a neighbor's generator.
"You see people running across the street with extension cords," said Cathy Eshmont, who lives in Dunloggin, one of several Ellicott City neighborhoods where residents say they've contended for years with frequent power failures. Eshmont has formed the group Reliability4HOCO and led an effort to petition the Maryland Public Service Commission for action. She and other residents testified this week before the panel.
"These are horrific situations," Eshmont told the commissioners. "It's been ongoing for a long, long time. We're asking for your help."
At the hearing in Baltimore, however, the commission heard different versions of the story. Based on several measurements and time periods, service in these neighborhoods was variously presented by BGE, commission staff, residents, a county consultant and the Maryland Office of People's Counsel as average for the utility, better than average or, in some cases, terrible.
The consultant supported the residents' view that there's a problem and, overall, it seemed clear 2011 was a bad year, and in recent years it's taken longer to restore power to these neighborhoods.
Commissioner Kelly Speakes-Backman told BGE representatives that their reassuring analysis of performance "doesn't line up with the experience your customers are having. That I find a little troubling."
Commissioner Harold D. Williams noted that power outages seem more common in recent years and wondered aloud if aging equipment might be a factor.
"I understand how you feel," he told Eshmont.
The five commissioners must sort through the information as they consider a decision, though the law sets no deadline for a ruling. PSC spokeswoman Regina L. Davis said the commission has conducted inquiries before based on consumer requests but that this was the first case that tapped a Maryland law requiring such a hearing if residents gather 100 petition signatures. Eshmont said 321 neighbors signed petitions early in 2012.
The County Council has also brought a separate case on behalf of another, larger group of neighborhoods complaining that their power fails not only during big storms, but even in mild and clear weather. The county's petition includes a list of eight demands for action, including restitution for those affected by outages.
Eshmont said the case brought by residents involves 14 "feeders" — circuits that carry electrical power to customers. The county's complaint includes another 33 feeders. Each circuit serves about 1,000 customers or meters, adding up to 47,000 in a county with 119,677 customers, said Rob Gould, a BGE spokesman.
Overall, between the county and Reliability4HOCO, complaints about reliability encompass more than a third of BGE customers in Howard.
"One part of my neighborhood loses power every time the wind blows," said Robert Siskind, who lives in Beaverbrook, near Columbia, after the May 7 hearing. "People in my neighborhood say a power outage costs them $500. They take it for granted they're going to throw their food out."
Mary Lou Boris said power outages have been "too numerous to count" since she bought her house in the Font Hill section of Clarksville in 1999. She has bought a generator, and estimates most homeowners in her neighborhood of more than 30 houses have as well.
"Howard County is looking to become the jewel of the nation," she said. "With this electric service?"
Jeannette M. Mills, a BGE vice president and chief customer officer, told the commissioners the utility was working on reliability issues in Howard months before Eshmont and her neighbors filed their petition.
"We believe work we've done so far has made improvements," she said.
She and a representative of the commission staff detailed several improvements to feeders, saying crews have been upgrading fuses, underground cables and other equipment and stepping up tree-trimming around power lines.
Eshmont told a different story, referring to BGE's "casual disregard in leaving these issues unaddressed for years. ... It is not just our perception that we've had reliability" problems.
Gould said later that while BGE "will never be dismissive of a concern," perception likely played a role in some complaints.