Howard residents, council demand action on power failures

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.

For instance, he said, residents may have expected work to begin sooner than it did, because planning started well before repairs. Also, he said, residents who report outages because they come home to blinking clock radios may only be seeing the result of the system redirecting power, almost instantaneously, after a tree falls on a line or a car hits a utility pole.

"That's the system doing its job," Mills said.

Chinyere Tucker, of the commission staff, said a report on the 14 feeders from 2009 through part of 2012 showed some performed better than others, but overall they were about average "when compared to systemwide reliability."

She added, however, that "my concerns are the customers are not happy. That in itself is significant."

Anne Johnson of the Maryland Office of People's Counsel told the commissioners that — not including storm-related failures — the 14 feeders were more reliable than the system overall in 2009 and 2010, but showed spikes in storm-related failures in 2010 and 2011. She said the duration of outages jumped in 2011 from the two previous years.

The County Council's hired consultant, Charles P. Salamone, also emphasized longer outages. Salamone, of Massachusetts-based Cape Power Systems Consulting LLC, said the average time to restore power jumped from nearly three hours in 2007 to six hours in 2011 — without taking major storms into account.

With major storms, the increase was 3.3 to 20 hours over that period, he said, adding, "This can hardly be considered acceptable."

Tucker and BGE representatives contend outages are longer in these neighborhoods because many power lines run above ground through wooded areas that are not along a utility right-of-way. That often means it takes longer for repair crews to reach the lines.

BGE spokesman Gould said after the hearing that trees, some planted by residents, "often grow up and overtake the lines," and are "a major cause of outages in that area."

He noted that a task force named by Gov. Martin O'Malley after the derecho storm last June recommended a program of stepped-up tree-trimming and selective burying of above-ground power lines. Burying all lines in the system would be too expensive, the task force found.

In the council case, which has not yet been heard, the legislators are asking BGE to come up with a work plan to cut outages back to the levels of 2007, and for the PSC to impose a daily fine of $10,000 for missing that deadline. The council is also asking for $500 restitution for each customer affected by power failures.

Council member Courtney Watson, who represents Eshmont and many of those who brought the petitions, said she was encouraged that the commissioners seemed to take the issue seriously.

"We thought the case went very well," she said. "The commission was asking very good questions."

Eshmont said she was encouraged that the proceedings reached a hearing.

"It's not a couple of nut-bag citizens complaining anymore," she said. "We've gotten some real attention."

Baltimore Sun reporter Jamie Smith Hopkins contributed to this article.

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