Saturday, February 5, 2011

Pepco yet again

The recent snowstorm dubbed Commutageddon brought down power lines and left almost 400,000 people in the metro area without power. Pepco's service was again thrust into the limelight and previously I had said that power service here was no better than the 3rd world. In this report from WaPo an irate customer said:

"Show me one capital city of an industrialized country where people have to move to hotels once or twice a year because their local utility provider cannot keep the power on."

Certainly's Pepco's performance has been less than stellar as another WaPo report finds:

... the average Pepco customer experienced 70 percent more outages than customers of other big city utilities that took part in one 2009 survey. And the lights stayed out more than twice as long.

Pepco's reliability began declining five years ago, records show; company officials acknowledge that they have known of the problem but that they only started to focus on it more recently.

Moreover, Pepco has long blamed trees as a primary culprit for the frequency and duration of its outages, implying that the problem is beyond its control. But that explanation does not hold up under scrutiny, The Post analysis found. By far, Pepco equipment failures, not trees, caused the most sustained power interruptions last year.

... But Pepco's reliability problems are more pervasive. Some of Pepco's most disturbing failures come quietly on days with no violent weather, according to The Post's analysis of industry data, interviews with experts and a review of thousands of pages of documents.

In recent years, Pepco has placed near the bottom for daily reliability in surveys that compared power companies around the country. Pepco tends to have more sustained power interruptions, defined as those lasting longer than five minutes. And when the lights go dark, they tend to stay off longer. In one 2008 survey, Pepco finished last among participating utility companies on two of three reliability measurements, records filed with regulators show. Pepco stopped participating in that annual study after its last-place finish.

Should we blame it on free markets and deregulation that emphasizes profits over investment in equipment?

... Pepco and its investors have enjoyed attractive earnings and share prices that have nearly doubled since 2009.

... Pepco's internal records show that in 2009 the company's workers identified equipment failures as the most common cause of outages, accounting for 44 percent. That was a 24-point increase over the previous year.

And the report goes on to compare:

The Washington region's three primary power providers have similar percentages of aboveground and underground lines. Pepco has buried 56 percent of its lines, BGE has buried 62 percent and Dominion Virginia has 58 percent of its lines in Northern Virginia underground (versus 38 percent systemwide).

Most memorable among the storms was this year's Snowmageddon, which brought more than two feet of snow to Montgomery County and shut down the region for days. Pepco lost power to almost 98,000 customers at the storm's height, in an outage that began at 7 p.m. Feb. 5, and did not fully restore service for about a week, federal data show.

Dominion, which serves about three times as many customers in Virginia and parts of North Carolina, lost power to 105,000 customers in an outage that began seven hours later and was declared resolved after about 29 hours.

In other words, Dominion's service stayed active longer and was fully restored more quickly - even though roughly the same number of customers were affected. BGE did not report a major outage.

Those figures are reinforced by a study by the Maryland Office of People's Counsel, an agency that represents consumers. The study found that during the storms in February, Pepco customers suffered the longest outages among customers of the six biggest power companies serving Maryland.

Pepco outages averaged 13.6 hours. Other companies had average outages of about six to eight hours; BGE customers suffered interruptions averaging 8.1 hours.

If deregulation is to blame, wouldn't all services be just as lousy as Pepco's or perhaps we should be looking at accounting practices and compensation schemes at Pepco that encourages short-term profits?

What about side effects?

While the reliability debate continues, Howard Hartmeyer, co-owner of J & H Power Equipment in Crofton, is watching his business thrive. He says generator sales, primarily to homes in Pepco's service area, have jumped 60 percent since June, crowding out all other work at his family-run company. His biggest seller is a natural gas generator that costs about $9,400 installed and can power an entire house.

No comments: