- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 23, 2012

Members of a newly formed task force looking at ways to reduce power outages in the District said it might be wiser to bury power lines only in high-risk areas than shell out billions for a citywide project.

While city residents marked Thursday’s one-year anniversary of a rare earthquake that jolted the capital region, the 15-member panel used its first meeting to focus on a fierce windstorm that caused widespread damage in the city less than two months ago. The June 29 “derecho” caused widespread power outages that lasted for days while the mercury topped 100 degrees, prompting Mayor Vincent C. Gray to call for a “game-changer” while residents decried the city’s power utility, Pepco, and fretted over live wires downed by tree branches.

Downtown areas of the District, where lines are buried, sustained far fewer outages than the outer edges of the city and the suburbs. Task force officials said areas with dense tree coverage and overhead wires — particularly in wards 3, 4, 7 and 8 — remain especially vulnerable to outages.

Members noted the significant benefit to burying power lines in tree-lined neighborhoods but also said it would take longer to restore power when outages did occur.

The mayor's task force is led by City Administrator Allen Lew and Pepco CEO Joe Rigby. Mr. Lew is known for his get-it-done attitude, and he said the underground project may be costly but that the price of failing to act would be more severe. He encouraged members to work collaboratively in spite of tensions that have marked the city’s relations with the utility in the past.

“We want everyone to be reading from the same script,” he said.

A large portion of the District’s power network is already underground, so “it isn’t a new phenomenon,” Mr. Gray said. About 65 percent, or 2,636 miles, of the city’s lines are buried, according to a presentation by Pepco.

But Pepco officials warned that customers who live in an area with underground lines might still experience storm-related outages because of damage along overhead portions of the distribution system that serves their homes. The panel can explore alternatives to putting lines underground to reduce the number of D.C. customers affected by storm-related outages and must submit a report to the mayor on its overall findings and recommendations by Jan. 31.

A 2010 study that examined other cities’ attempts to bury their lines found it makes more sense, in a cost-benefit analysis, to target areas, said Betty Ann Kane, chairman of the D.C. Public Service Commission. She said a citywide program would likely land on “the cost side, rather than benefit.”

The District also could bury select lines along its power distribution paths, totaling $1.1 billion for primary lines, $2.3 billion for primary lines and “laterals,” and $5.8 billion for the whole system, according to 2010 figures. Task force members also pointed to construction and streetscape projects as an ideal time to bury lines.

Among ways to pay for the project, customers could pay higher rates or pay a surcharge for a specific period, Ms. Kane said.

Pepco provides power to about 788,000 customers in the District and Maryland. The derecho hit the Pepco service area shortly after 10 p.m. June 29 and knocked out power to nearly 500,000 Pepco customers, 85 percent of them in Maryland. Pepco said the peak outage for D.C. customers was nearly 76,000 the day after the storm.

“We really have serious problems, and we need to solve them,” said Matt Frumin, a resident member of the task force from Ward 3.

The first three public witnesses to speak at the meeting said the current situation should not give Pepco carte blanche to cut away wide swaths of the city’s tree canopy.

Bill Chip, who spoke on behalf of the Massachusetts Avenue Heights Citizens Association, said the destruction of the trees near his home reduced shade and increased his electric bill when he had to turn up his air conditioning.

“From Pepco’s standpoint, that’s a great result, right?” he said.