Wednesday, August 11, 2010

City of Gaithersburg Writes PSC About Pepco

The Mayor and City Council of Gaithersburg have sent the following letter about Pepco to the Maryland Public Service Commission (PSC).

August 5, 2010

Mr. Douglas R.M. Nazarian
Maryland Public Service Commission
45 Calvert Street
Annapolis, MD 21401

Dear Mr. Chairman:

We are writing you today to request that the Public Service Commission investigate what we have been forced to conclude is the Potomac Electric Power Company’s inability to provide reliable electric service to our residents. As you know, the City of Gaithersburg has no direct legal authority over utility companies. We are relying on the PSC to review and act upon our concerns. While the fallout from the recent violent thunderstorms underscored this matter, our residents also experience persistent and unexplained outages on clear days with no valid explanation provided.

On Sunday, July 25, 2010 the region was hit by severe thunderstorms that passed directly through the City of Gaithersburg. As a result, thousands of PEPCO customers were without power for extensive periods of time, many for several days. Businesses suffered loss of revenues and homeowners incurred costs for perishable foods and medicines, hotel stays, etc. The apparent fragility of the system leaves our residents feeling vulnerable to unpredictable inconvenience and expense at the least and serious danger at the worst. This should not be the case in a place like Maryland, especially in the region that is home to our nation's capital. We can and must do much better.

PEPCO claims that a main reason for the widespread outages is the large tree canopy near most of the local power infrastructure. We cannot accept this explanation. Neighboring jurisdictions have extensive tree canopies as well and do not experience the same prolonged power outages. Still, we believe that a comprehensive review of tree management practices in feeder corridors is in order, as one piece of a larger response.

Another major concern is the lack of communication during the storm and its aftermath. At the most crucial time, immediately following the storm, PEPCO’s automated system was disabled. This is unacceptable. It is imperative that PEPCO have the capability to provide timely and accurate information to its customers and to coordinate this information with the local governments who represent them. The City has the ability to disseminate information in a variety of ways, but no one from PEPCO reached out to us proactively for assistance to inform our residents on the status of PEPCO’s efforts.

Local governments have refined their joint emergency management operations with agreements and procedures to address regional crises, which include regular emergency management conference calls between senior officials who have the knowledge and authority to make decisions. Participants must be ready to provide critical and at times sensitive or confidential information. In an emergency when time is essential, key staff must be available for these calls. The PEPCO staff in the County Emergency Operations Center and on the conference calls was professional and cooperative but not authorized to make decisions. By contrast, when the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission dealt with recent crises, their General Manager was on the calls with local emergency management officials from the first moment.

We acknowledge the difficulty of obtaining assistance from out-of-state utility companies and appreciate the help that those crews provided. They were staged out of the Montgomery County Fairgrounds in Gaithersburg and the sheer number of them was gratifying. It does appear, however, that our residents suffered longer than necessary. We would like confirmation that once the extent of the damage was known, PEPCO acted to mobilize its mutual aid agreement in the most timely manner possible. Additionally, we recommend that those existing agreements be modified to require PEPCO to inform local governments immediately when it has availed itself of the assistance of out-of-state crews. Even though it may have taken those crews many hours to arrive, PEPCO could have at least better informed local governments and the public that the crews had been called and were mobilizing.

Finally, the City requests the PSC specifically investigate PEPCO’s inability to provide a valid reason why certain City neighborhoods lose power more frequently and for longer periods of time. Lest there be any confusion, the lack of reliability from PEPCO extends far beyond the response to the recent storm. The PSC should require PEPCO to examine what deficiencies may exist in the lines that provide electricity to these homes and businesses, and then promptly develop and implement a plan to identify and, to the extent possible, strengthen the weak points in those distribution lines. Requiring PEPCO to take this action seems to be the only way to reduce the risk of repeated and lengthy outages for many of our residents and businesses in particular pockets throughout our City.

We are asking for a meeting with PEPCO senior management to discuss ways to better work together, explore best practices, and generally avoid repeating this scenario again and again. We look forward to working with the PSC to effect the dramatic improvement that is needed.

Thank you for your prompt and thorough attention to these important matters.

Sidney A. Katz, Mayor
Cathy Drzyzgula, Council Vice President
Jud Ashman, Council Member
Henry F. Marraffa, Jr., Council Member
Ryan Spiegel, Council Member
Michael A. Sesma, Council Member

CC: Governor Martin O’Malley
District 17 Delegation
County Executive Isiah Leggett
County Councilmembers
Mr. Joseph M. Rigby, CEO and President, PEPCO Holdings, Inc.
Mr. Thomas Graham, President, PEPCO Region
Montgomery Chapter of the Maryland Municipal League