- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 4, 2012

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

One day after having electricity restored at home, it’s beginning to seem like a very bad dream: About 81 hours without power, with sweltering temperatures and the contents of a refrigerator-freezer relocated to the trash. I’m guessing my financial hit is somewhere around $1,000, although others almost certainly fared worse.

That said, I counted nearly 100,000 customers of Dominion Virginia Power, Pepco and Baltimore Gas & Electric (BGE) listed as being without power Wednesday morning, using website information from each of those firms, having searched for numbers from Northern Virginia, the District of Columbia and Montgomery, Prince George’s and Howard counties in Maryland. So my neighbors and I are quite fortunate, and we’re all grateful for the hard work of utility crews in bringing back service.

At the height of the ordeal, the frustration level was high, in large part because of incomplete and conflicting information from BGE, of which more in a moment. Public officials excoriated Pepco for its alleged lack of progress and candor during the outages: Montgomery County Executive Isiah “Ike” Leggett declared Pepco’s restoration timetable “unacceptable,” while Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley used rather earthy language to tell Pepco he’d closely monitor its activities.


Much of this, I believe, could have been avoided. Ironically, Pepco had in place tools that could have brought more information and help to its customers; Dominion Virginia Power and BGE displayed varying degrees of candor on their websites. In 2012, there seems to be little excuse for the fog of confusion that enveloped out-of-power customers for days after the storm.

Not only did the utilities, by and large, fail to restore service as quickly as customers (and politicians) wanted, they failed - if my experience is typical - to provide the accurate and honest information customers deserved in order to make critical decisions in an appropriate manner.

Pepco has a mobile application - available for Android, iPhone and BlackBerry platforms - that is said to deliver information on outages and restoration status to customers. The app, and the underlying service, come from iFactor Consulting, a firm in Scottsdale, Ariz., whose website says New York’s ConEdison, the South’s Entergy and Kentucky’s LG&E and KU power companies are among its customers, along with Pepco.

In theory, the Pepco app should work, though media reports indicated some users were less than thrilled with the results. But at least those customers had something to work with.

Dominion Virginia Power provided a bit more information to its users, posting a daily update of work locations - right down to specific intersections - where crews were dispatched. As with Pepco and BGE, the Virginia firm had an online “outage map” that was updated periodically.

My service provider, BGE, represented a challenge when it came to providing information. The utility at present has no mobile app for its customers, and telephone service reps dispensed at times rather optimistic forecasts. (At 11:14 a.m. on Sunday, this columnist was told the company was “pretty sure” power would be back by 9:30 that evening, almost 36 hours before it actually happened.) Work location listings were general, giving only the names of towns or neighborhoods, no intersections.

True, no utility can guarantee uninterrupted service, and so-called “acts of God” are just that. But given that BGE traces its history to 1816, a customer might expect that in an emergency, more candid and helpful information could be provided online to enable customers to make appropriate decisions.

In a telephone interview, Rob Gould, vice president of corporate communications for the utility, said “the nature of storm restoration … does not lend itself to specificity, it’s a really delicate balance.” He explained that what might look like a simple repair can become quite complex once workers are on the scene, and the suddenness of Friday’s storm, unlike hurricanes for which a forecast can be made early, presented an additional logistical challenge.

At present, Mr. Gould said, “We have no idea of what’s going on at the [customer’s end of the electric] meter” until customers call in. He said “smart meters” are beginning to be installed that can communicate outage information to the utility, and that BGE is in the process of developing a mobile app for customers.

Those are hopeful signs, but perhaps a little push is in order: While political leaders such as Mr. Leggett and Mr. O'Malley invoke tough language after a disaster occurs, I think it would be better for consumers, and communities, if regulators required more complete disclosure from utilities during a crisis. Uncertainty, predictions based on unknown data and confusion help no one, least of all the (literally) powerless ratepayer.

The storm may or may not have been predictable, given the technology available to utilities. But helping customers deal more easily with the consequences should be.

Story Continues →