- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 16, 2012

D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray said Thursday a newly formed task force will explore the best way to bury power lines in the District, a costly game changer intended to thwart the kind of long-term power outages that plagued the capital region after a fierce windstorm on June 29.

The mayor’s Task Force on Power Line Undergrounding puts key city officials and executives from Pepco, the region’s electricity utility, in the same room to discuss a plan that could cost more than $5 billion and take decades to complete. They will meet for the first time on Aug. 23 at the John A. Wilson Building.

Mr. Gray formed the task force in response to the outcry that followed a damaging derecho that swept through the Beltway area with little warning, uprooting trees and destroying power lines. The timing could not have been worse; the prolonged outages occurred during a heat wave in which temperatures crested 100 degrees.

Outages lasted much longer than normal, with Mr. Gray noting that his Hillcrest home in Ward 7 was dark for five days.

“The undergrounding task force will finally develop long-term solutions to these all-too-frequent disruptions,” Mr. Gray said Thursday.

The outages raised questions about the reliability of Pepco’s infrastructure, while fallen branches were singled out as the main culprits for power problems. Downtown areas of the District, where lines are buried, sustained far fewer outages than the outer edges of the city and the suburbs.

City lawmakers and Pepco officials were wary of any project to put lines underground in the immediate aftermath of the storm, citing its cost and difficulty. But in the weeks following the storm, the mayor said the expense likely would be worth it in comparison to the amount spent on repeated power outages.

Several D.C. Council members who met with Pepco officials in the days following the stormsaid lines potentially could be buried whenever the ground is excavated for new construction or streetscape projects.

“With this task force, it really shows that D.C. is ready to discuss the possibility of underground wires, even if it’s in targeted areas,” said council member Yvette M. Alexander, Ward 7 Democrat and chairman of the Committee on Public Services and Consumer Affairs. Her committee held a hearing last month on Pepco’s response to the storm. “A lot of people are kind of fed up with all of the outages.”

Officials from the utility told city lawmakers they are ready and willing to enter serious talks with customers and the city government about burying power lines in the District. The exact price of such a project is unknown, but the task force’s research should enable the District to determine “the real numbers and the real timeline,” Ms. Alexander said.

According to a mayor’s order, the task force is expected to look at the general causes of storm-related power outages in the District, examine data that detail the severity of power outages in the past 10 years and examine the costs and quality-of-life effects of burying lines throughout the city or in targeted areas.

It may look at alternatives to putting lines underground to reduce the number of D.C. customers impacted by storm-related outages and must submit a report to the mayor on its overall findings and recommendations by Jan. 31.

City Administrator Allen Y. Lew and Pepco Holdings Chairman Joseph M. Rigby will be task force co-chairmen. Other notable members include D.C. Chief Financial Officer Natwar M. Gandhi and multiple members of Mr. Gray’s Cabinet who are in charge of transportation, public works and public safety.

Pepco provides power to about 788,000 customers in the District and Maryland. Overall, the storm, which hit the Pepco service area around 10:15 p.m. on June 29, knocked out power to nearly 500,000 Pepco customers, 85 percent of whom were Maryland residents. Pepco said the peak outage for D.C. customers was nearly 76,000 the day after the storm.

The utility said Thursday it is “honored” to be part of the mayor’s task force.

“We look forward working with the group to identify the benefits, costs, and different issues associated with undergrounding power lines,” company spokesman Bob Hainey said. “Pepco will provide whatever support needed to develop meaningful recommendations.”