Patience Wears Thin Over Pepco’s Track Record and Response to Storm Outages

About 780 Pepco customers are still without power a month after heavy rain and wind over 55 mph hit the D.C. area. Residents and politicians have expressed outrage over the utility’s performance following the Jan. 26 snowstorm as the company scrambles to restore power.

The number of residents affected by the windstorm peaked at about 47,000, according to Pepco, which has been under fire since the January storm left thousands of D.C. residents cold and in the dark due to power outages.

Not only have residents been disappointed by Pepco’s performance to restore power promptly, many D.C. council members, including Muriel Bowser, D-Ward 4, are fed up as well.

On Feb. 11, the Committee on Public Services and Consumer Affairs, chaired by Yvette Alexander, D-Ward 7, held a public hearing regarding the utility company’s restoration efforts and services last month.

Bowser, a committee member and former chair, was present to hear residents’ testimony.

“All of us are concerned about improving the reliability service to our residents,” Bowser said. “The people that I represent are really disproportionately affected in many of these storms.”

On Feb. 1, Bowser introduced a bill that would force Pepco to reimburse any resident who had to check in to a hotel due to prolonged power outages.

Bowser admitted the bill will need fine-tuning, but “it is an initial step towards holding our power companies to account for their recent failures to prevent outages and to repair them as soon as possible,” she said in a statement.

James McSpadden of AARP D.C. testified on behalf of its 86,000 members regarding Pepco’s reliability. Thousands of its members, who are 50 and older, were affected by the power outages.

“Our members are justifiably angry over both the frequency and length of outages in Pepco’s service areas,” McSpadden said in his testimony.

Pepco issued a summary of its storm response, which highlighted its “Six Point Reliability Enhancement Plan.”

But McSpadden said the company should go above and beyond. He discussed a set of “best practices,” which AARP says can help Pepco improve its services.

“The commission should ensure that utilities conform to the annual standards by establishing predetermined penalties that result in compensation to all customers for the failure to meet the standards,” AARP recommends. The organization also said penalties should be absorbed by shareholders, which will best motivate compliance.

In a letter that took up a full-page advertisement in the Washington Post on Feb. 7, Pepco Chairman and CEO Joseph Rigby said, “We sincerely apologize for any inconvenience you may have experienced.”

“The past year has seen several powerful wind and snow storms that have caused widespread and extended power outages for Pepco customers,” Rigby said. “Those outages have prompted storms of criticism. We regret that we are not meeting your expectations.”

Pepco has said that the trees are to blame for the recurring outages. Yet, the Washington Post reported that Pepco has not spent the available funds for tree trimming.

Last year on Dec. 17, the Office of the People’s Counsel (OPC) audited Pepco’s management and found that it has placed in the bottom 25 percent for three industry-accepted reliability indices compared to other electric companies between 2007 and 2010.  

“The reliability of Pepco’s distribution system encompasses more than major storm events,” said Brenda Pennington, OPC interim counsel.

“Of course, one may think Pepco’s dismal showings are because of inclement weather. That is not the case,” said Pennington in her testimony. “Pepco does not include data from significant outage events like the one on Jan. 26. It shows that Pepco’s poor reliability has very little to do with severe storms or weather.”