Keeping The Lights On
October 30, 2012 - 2:23pm ET
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It's been rumored for some time that my governor, Maryland's Martin O'Malley, is considering a run for the White House in 2016. O'Malley has dropped a few hints himself. He tested the waters at the Democratic convention, and launched a national PAC this summer. If O'Malley does run for president in 2016, he got closer to getting my vote thanks to his handling of hurricane Sandy. Specifically, Gov. O'Malley won me over by fulfilling a promise to keep our lights on by keeping his "boot up the backside" of our local power utility — the one our previous Republican governor left virtually unregulated.
We expected to lose power during the storm, and to remain without power for days afterwards. It's happened more times than I care to count. If it rains, we lose power. If it snows, we lose power. If the wind blows, we lose power. Once, this summer, we lost power on a calm, cloudless, sunny day.
Last night, after reading warnings that the worst of Sandy's winds would hit our area between 8:00 pm and 2:00 am, I watched and waited. I checked the outage maps, watched the numbers grow, and waited to join the growing number of people in our area without power.
We prepared for our impending powerlessness by loading up on flashlight batteries, buying candles, and stocking our pantry with non-perishables that did not require refrigeration, so that we keep the fridge closed and possibly keep the food inside from spoiling. Earlier in the day, we took care of things that we knew we wouldn't be able to do when the lights went out. We did loads of laundry, etc. But as we entered the window period in which the winds would likely plunge us into darkness, I left the dishes in the sink lest I load and start the dishwasher only to have the lights go out. I figured that I'd just do the dishes by candlelight, once the lights went out.
But the lights didn't go out. At midnight, I loaded the dishwasher, and by the time I went to bed at 2:00 am the dishes were clean and the lights were still on. The lights were still on this morning, and I'm crediting Martin O'Malley with helping keep them on.
This summer, O'Malley promised to keep his "boot up Pepco's backside" to get power restored after the derecho left thousands without power for nearly a week.
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Pepco has crews working around the clock to restore power knocked out by Friday night’s storm, but some customers may remain in the dark through the week.
Pepco estimates 90 percent of the outages will be restored by 11 p.m. Friday, a timetable Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett called unacceptable at a news conference with Gov. Martin O’Malley.
"Nobody will have their boot further up Pepco's backside than I will to make sure we get there," O'Malley said about the July 6 timeframe.
Pepco president Tom Graham said about 343,000 customers remain without power as of noon Sunday. About 443,000 people were without power at the thunderstorm’s peak.
This morning, though Sandy left millions without power, our lights were on. I think there are at least a couple of reasons for that. First, we're far enough inland to avoid catching the worst of the water and wind. Second, Gov. O'Malley kept his promise to keep his "boot up Pepco's backside," and demand better performance for Maryland residents.
With his state squarely in the path of Hurricane Sandy, the Maryland governor is determined to ensure that the local utility—with one of the worst track records in the country—does everything it can to keep the lights on.
“We’ve had our boot up the backside of Pepco to bring in mutual aid help from other states,” O’Malley told The Daily Beast on Monday. “When we started tracking this storm, the first calls I made were to Pepco” and to the region’s other utility, Baltimore Gas & Electric. “I said, ‘Get the assets in here from every place you can.’”
The result is that Pepco, which serves D.C. and Maryland, has brought in more than 3,000 emergency personnel from other states.
Pepco is practically a dirty word in the nation’s capital. Its 778,000 customers have experienced 70 percent more outages than those in other big cities. Service has declined markedly over the past seven years, and the company has ranked at or near the bottom of U.S. utilities in terms of reliability. Even modest storms can knock out power to some customers for a week or more.
I've written about Pepco a few times, because it's one of the most poorly rated utilities in the country. It's been rated in the bottom 25% for service interruptions, and in the bottom 50% for customer satisfaction. A Washington Post article about why Pepco can't keep the lights on debunked several myths about Pepco, and laid the blame for outages on Pepco's failure to invest in its infrastructure. Meanwhile the company demanded rate increases, and expected its poorly-served customer to pay up for improvements.
The commission that's supposed to regulate the utility has owned up to its part.
Local regulators bear some responsibility. “We, as a commission, can fairly be criticized,” Douglas Nazarian, chairman of the Maryland Public Service Commission, told The Washington Post in July. “We didn’t pick up early enough on the need for comprehensive reliability regulations. You can call us on that one.” Last year the regulators hit Pepco with an unprecedented $1 million fine.
If the commission failed to "pick up early enough on the need for comprehensive reliability regulation," it's because the previous Republican govern's administration "lobotomized" the commission.
You see, about six years ago our previous Republican governor appointed a man with close ties to the industry to the Maryland Public Services Commission who lobotomized the commission, which is supposed to regulate utilities. MPSC has never really recovered from that "lobotomy".
Maryland Public Service Commission Chairman Kenneth D. Schisler discussed with a power company official how to get Republicans into the leadership of a national utility regulators association and how to draft legislation that would boost energy competition in Maryland, a new batch of recently released e-mail shows.
The November 2004 discussion took place when the official, Loyd "Aldie" Warnock, was working for Mirant Corp., an Atlanta-based company that owns three Maryland power plants rated by an environmental watchdog group as among the dirtiest in the nation.
...Disclosure of the correspondence comes days after The Sun obtained e-mail between Schisler and utility industry lobbyist Carville B. Collins, revealing discussion of commission appointments and political strategy on utility deregulation.
In the e-mail, Schisler and the lobbyist discussed how to address criticism that the chairman had "lobotomized" the agency by replacing high-level staff members. They also discussed how to keep an energy deregulation plan on track despite expected criticism of rising rates.
Mission accomplished. Pepco is accountable to no one.
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.
So, to recap, we have have a government-subsidized, untaxed, virtually unregulated, corporate monopoly (rather than a city utility) that has no real incentive to reduce outages or downtime, because (a) there's nowhere else for its customers to go for electricity, and (b) they get paid whether they're supplying us with power or not.
I guess that's business friendly regulation for ya.
Mitt Romney wants to leave disaster relief and matters like power restoration to state and local governments — and says leaving it to the private sector is an even better solution.
For what it's worth, I'm glad my governor isn't slow to respond to disasters, as Mitt Romney was when he was governor of Massachusetts. And I'm glad that President Obama answered the call when governors called for federal help, and that FEMA has all the funds it needs for responding to hurricane Sandy.
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