Excuse me if I have déjà vu and am a bit cynical about the latest outrage over the power outages following the June 29 storm. While I believe the sincerity in the outrage, a part of me senses that little will result in the calls for Pepco to improve service. Unless we take real, tangible measures and not pay lip service to what is becoming a serious problem in Montgomery County, Pepco service will continue to fail residents and we will return to where we started with more outages, poor service, and outrage followed by inaction and no substantive change by Pepco.
The talking points and outrage coming from Pepco and our elected leaders, respectively, in response to the June 29 storm are no different from comments made in 2010. Pepco continued describing Montgomery County as a Redwood Forest of the East Coast, with a vast amount of trees in the way of our power lines. Furthermore, much like the derecho of 2012, the storms of 2010 were also “unexpected” and caught Pepco “off guard,” and this explained why residents and businesses suffered long stretches without power. On the other end of the spectrum are our county and statewide leaders, who called for reforms by Pepco. Studies were conducted that revealed, to nobody’s surprise, the sheer level of incompetence of Pepco’s service to its customers.
In response to the outcry, Pepco received a slap on the wrist for its inadequacy. Sure, a five-year improvement plan and a law allowing the Public Service Commission (PSC) to impose fines to electric utilities for not meeting reliability standards seemed good at the time, but in retrospect it was not enough. Pepco’s improvement plan is a public relations gimmick for which the company has spent more time on ads explaining the great things it is doing as opposed to actually improving service. And while the PSC levied a $1 million fine against Pepco in 2010, it was a drop in the bucket to the utility company compared with the revenue it generates on a quarterly basis.
If our elected officials are serious about addressing this issue, public hearings, letters, and threats will not solve the problem. While I don’t pretend to have all the answers, there are three things we can do to get things started. First, fine Pepco and hurt its bottom line. Pepco’s holding company generates more than $1 billion a quarter; thus, a $1 million penalty does little to impact the company’s bottom line. A penalty that significantly hurts Pepco on its financial statement sends a clear message to the company. Second, seek an updated improvement plan that contains tangible milestones to improve service and force Pepco to provide quarterly updates. Consider imposing fines if milestones are not met. Both the state and regulators need to stay on top of Pepco and ensure that improvements are being made. Finally, create a commission to study and find true alternatives to our electricity problems. It is time we discuss and explore alternatives whether they include Pepco as our provider or not. Issue papers and reports will not achieve this. A substantive report truly analyzing the problem and laying out alternatives is key to addressing the situation.
Pepco cannot get away with another slap on the wrist. The community also cannot accept third-world service, empty promises, and unjustified rate increases. If we do not adequately address this issue with substantive and hard measures, it will be déjà vu all over again when—not if—we have another outage.