“Enough is Enough”

Montgomery County Council President Roger Berliner made the following statement on Pepco’s performance after the June 29 storm that left many Montgomery County residents and businesses without electric power for extended periods:

No issue is more important than reliable electric power. And the simple and sad truth is we don’t have it and we haven’t had it for far too long. Enough is enough. Our residents have had enough. And while this was a big storm, and outages are to be expected, Pepco’s performance – on every level – was unacceptable.

The length of the outages. The appalling communications. The computer glitches and data discrepancies. The list can go on and on.

People are beyond angry. I have seen online petitions, Youtube songs and have personally received hundreds of emails. My first meeting of the week was with a group of my constituents who have had enough and are ready to organize.

One of our responsibilities as local elected officials – particularly given that authority over Pepco lies solely with the Maryland Public Service Commission – is to harness that anger so that it can be a constructive force. I have spent almost 40 years of my professional life at the intersection of energy, utilities, public policy and the law, so I feel a particular responsibility in this regard, in addition to my role as President of the Council and Chair of the committee with jurisdiction over energy issues. And fortunately, we have a lot of well informed residents, so I have been able to draw upon their suggestions as well.

So, here is at least a start on what needs to be attended to immediately, in the short-term, and in the long-term.

First, we need accountability. Real accountability. No slap on the wrists. We need our Public Service Commission to hold Pepco’s feet to the fire. Assuming the Commission concludes that Pepco’s performance does not measure up, and it is hard to see how they could conclude otherwise, then the consequences must be real. They have to be big enough to change Pepco’s behavior. I believe our Commission should follow the lead of other states and adopt what is called “performance based ratemaking.” If the utility performs, it can make money. But if it does not perform, there are significant penalties.

Pepco needs to make some changes immediately as well. First, it needs to hire more line men. We need more boots on the ground. I have been told by numerous sources that Pepco only has 120-130 line men employed fulltime by the company. This small team of responders on staff means that Pepco is dreadfully slow to respond to outages. But there are other negative consequences as well. Pepco participates in what is called a “mutual assistance pact” with other utilities. The bottom line is, if Pepco isn’t able to provide much mutual assistance to others when they are in need, then it gets less help from others when it is in need.

The other aspect of their operations that needs immediate attention is their computer system, data retentions capacity and communications. Many customers understand an outage after a storm of this magnitude, but Pepco’s complete failure to communicate even the most basic pieces of information only adds to the frustration. The messages I received from constituents during the outage suggested that Pepco kept almost no record of reports of outages. A resident could call on Monday to report an outage and be told when calling back Tuesday that it had not yet been reported. Common sense says that Pepco not only must retain its data – but ensure that it is actually used to restore outages! Many customers also experienced what Pepco acknowledged to be a “glitch” where Pepco’s computer would calibrate the remaining outages assuming that if a particular feeder was fixed, all of the homes served by that feeder were up. Not so. In an era of apps, iPads and smart phones, Pepco’s system is appalling. As one resident said to me today: “It is as though they are themselves ‘disconnected.’ ”

Those are “immediate fixes.” Short-term, we need to improve the resiliency of the system. We need to look carefully at both undergrounding and redundant feeders. This system is antiquated and not suitable for this era and certainly not suitable for the future. We must have highly reliable service. It is not a luxury. It is an essential, fundamental service. And while some of these fixes will cost a lot of money, I personally believe those dollars pale in comparison to the dollars that are lost with each successive outage. And, with climate change, we can expect more violent storms. We need a modernized grid, a grid for the future.

Long-term, we need to be less dependent on this centralized monopoly. We need to be moving toward what are called “micro grids” and distributed generation – such as roof top solar. The price of roof top solar is expected to come down dramatically, and we will need to insulate ourselves from Pepco.

And finally, I think we need to continue to explore alternatives to Pepco, such as public power. We need to increasingly control our own destiny in this vital area. Public power has a track record of providing more reliable service. Public power doesn’t serve shareholders – it is solely responsible to its customers. I think it is time for our state legislators to give Montgomery County the authority we need to explore public power through enabling legislation. Any ultimate decision could be subject to a referendum by our residents and would only be pursued if, after careful due diligence, our County concludes it is in our best interest and financial feasible.

These are my immediate, short-term and long-term suggestions. What is clear is that Pepco’s abysmal failure to provide our county with reliable electricity has gone on long enough.

Want to learn more, view Council President Berliner’s July 9 press conference here on MyMCMedia.org.

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