What We Learned in the Blackout of Summer 2012

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It’s been a month since the powerful thunderstorm–a derecho to be specific–knocked out power to most of Rockville and the Mid-Atlantic.  But let’s call a spade a spade–it was a massive power outage, a blackout, during the hottest days of summer.  Most lost power for days, some for a week.  As we discovered, if you lose the internet, you’re back in 1979; if you lose electricity, you’re back in 1879.  Anger boiled over in the days that followed, but now it seems nearly forgotten.  Before our memories fade, what did we learn?  Here’s my list, culled from talking with neighbors, reading the newspapers, and scanning the listservs:

1.  Pepco doesn’t know your power is out unless you tell them.  Don’t assume they have some fancy computer system that notifies them automatically that you’ve lost power, assume that your neighbor has called, assume it’ll fix itself, or assume that they’re busy and you don’t want to trouble them (poor dears!).  Call them at 877-737-2662.  Write this number down and put it on your fridge–another power outage will occur and you’ll want this handy.  Many people said they called but Pepco thought their power had been restored, so call daily to ensure they have the correct information.  David Greene noted that he used his mobile phone to, “monitor the Pepco outage map, and they marked our power as restored several times during the week when it was not actually restored. I called them many times to get us back on their map.”

2.  Pepco prioritizes work based on the number of outages.  That makes sense–first tackle the jobs that will benefit the most people–if they have the correct information.  But if you and your neighbors don’t call Pepco, they will assume everything is okay (see #1 above).  You might want to visit your neighbors and check to see if they’ve called.

3.  If you have FIOS, your “landline” phone won’t work.  How disappointing to have the latest technology and discover it’s useless in a power outage.  My FIOS system came with a battery backup, but it didn’t last long enough.  Fortunately my cell phone was fine and I could call Pepco.  Linda in Twinbrook suggests going to a “thrift store, yard sale, whatever, and buy a landline phone that does NOT require batteries” but David Greene believes this won’t work:  “True landlines provide power over the wires to your phone, but mobile phones and digital networks must rely on external power.  Digital networks, such as FIOS, provide regular phone jacks so you can use your regular corded and cordless phones, but those are not landlines. If you have FIOS, then all your phones need external power to operate.”  Confused?  I’m relying on my cell phone.

4.  Everyone needs to be prepared for the next power outage.  Here’s a start:

  • A cell phone is essential to call Pepco but a smartphone will allow you to get news from the web and monitor Twitter.  As I traveled around town, I tweeted the status of stores, gas stations, and traffic signals so people knew where to go.  A phone is only as good as its battery, so have a charger for the car (forget about going to Radio Shack for batteries–they’ll already be cleaned out).
  • Battery-operated radio, flashlights, and fans.  Please, don’t use candles.
  • Have $40-$100 in cash.  The power outage knocked out ATMs and credit card machines, so stores were accepting cash only.
  • Make friends with people in different neighborhoods.  Power outages are random, so someone is bound to be unaffected and have lights, air conditioning, and a outlet to charge a phone.  I bonded with friends in the West End who graciously invited me for drinks and dinner in their cool, brightly lit home.  After three days without power, I felt like I had gone to a resort.
  • Consider buying a generator, but use it wisely.  We had a couple neighbors with gas-powered generators that created noxious fumes and an irritating hum.   I’m not sure what it would be like if everyone had one (although we stay inside and live with the inconvenience for a few days).  Perhaps we can agree to turn them off between 10 pm and 6 am so people can sleep on a warm night with their windows open?  If you want to buy a generator, Robert Ostland suggests that you can, “run your fridge, freezer and a window AC unit and some lights with a 5500W portable for $600, but you have to know what you are doing.  Otherwise you can spend between $3000 and $10,000 for a whole house system.”
  • Don’t drive around looking for gas.  Everyone else is doing the same thing so the traffic is bad and if a gas station is open, the lines will be long.  Just wait at home if you can or try walking or use the bus (they were running!).

5.  The City of Rockville was far more responsive than Montgomery County.  The storm and subsequent power outage meant that trees fell across streets and sidewalks, traffic lights were out, and water pumps weren’t working.  A lot of staff came in to work overtime to clear streets, manage intersections, and prep cooling centers.  Some people suggested that the City should have also provided ice, but I think that’s a low priority compared to the other issues.  A couple things helped tremendously:

  • Maintaining safety at traffic intersections, either by having signals that continued working thanks to battery-backups or just installing temporary stop signs.  I can’t believe how many people don’t see the signal if it’s not lit or assume dead means green.  Scary.
  • Getting information up on the Website and out on Twitter.  Rockville had some problems powering the server, but eventually, information was getting out to residents, who were as isolated as if they were in a snowstorm.  MoCo’s website, on the other hand, was pathetic–it only had the latest information about the golf tournament.

6.  Shattered myth #1:  Power outages are due to downed lines.  There’s been some effort to underground lines, which I support just because overhead lines are so ugly, but it’s not a guarantee it’ll prevent an outage.  New Mark Commons is entirely serviced underground and they were one of the last neighborhoods to be restored.  Drew Powell mentioned that his section of Woodley Gardens has underground power lines but that they, “experience even MORE outages than everyone else.  Our underground cable was installed by PEPCO in 1968.  The cable has a 20 year life expectancy.  In 2012, 44 years later, the cable has yet to be replaced.”  As Brad Plumer noted in the Washington Post, “burying power lines isn’t the only way to respond to a storm–and often it’s not even the most effective strategy.”  Some neighbors talked with the utility workers and discovered the outages were not only due to downed lines, but worn lines, blown fuses, and damaged transformers.  If you still want to support underground lines through an online petition, you’ll find one at change.org.

7.  Shattered myth #2:  Pepco hears your complaints and they’re doing the best they can.  Turns out, Pepco’s reliability is lower than average but their profits are higher than average (see “Five Myths About Pepco” in the Washington Post).   And despite the extent of the latest power outage, Pepco isn’t willing to admit to its shortcomings nor sympathize with its customers.  At a Montgomery County Council meeting, Pepco’s regional president Tom Graham stated that it wasn’t reasonable for people “to be upset that they’re out of service for a week or more.”  How thoughtful.

8.  Shattered myth #3:  The City Council, County Council, or Congress can do something about this.  Sorry, it turns out none of them has any authority or influence.  They can hold hearings, take public testimony, and issue reports but ultimately, what they think, do, or say won’t affect Pepco.  It’s a utility regulated by the State of Maryland, specifically the Maryland Public Service Commission (PSC).  Pepco is a business, so the best way to get their attention is their pocketbook.  That’s what  Congressman Chris Van Hollen did by asking the Public Service Commission to reject Pepco’s recent request for a four percent rate hike (it was denied).  The Maryland Public Service Commission is one of the state’s most powerful and influential state agencies, overseeing electricity, gas, telecommunications, and taxicabs. It consists of just five persons, all appointed by the Governor, so if you really want to affect change, you can complain to the Commission (who’s a bit insulated since their appointees) at the upcoming public hearing on Tuesday, August 7 at 7:00 pm in the Montgomery County Office Building in Rockville.  But if you really want to make a difference, complain to Governor O’Malley because he’s an elected official and appoints the PSC.  He’s been keeping a low profile and the most he’s done is produce a video asking “Marylanders to look out for one another” and issue an executive order to study how to “strengthen the grid and improve its resiliency.”  O’Malley needs to clearly show that he recognizes there’s a problem (not just that outages “can lead to a decreased quality of life”) and that he’s going to hold public utilities accountable (not “solicit input and recommendations from experts”).  Please, stop the jargon and have some guts so I can feel good about voting for you next time.

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2 responses

  1. No digital phone service should be considered a “land line.” Traditional land lines are analog and often called POTS (Plain Old Telephone Service). FIOS phone service is digital andcomes with a battery so a plugged-in phone will work over FIOS until the FIOS battery is discharged. This is likely to be hours and not days. Also even POTS will not work if the wires come down. It is amazing how often the power goes out and POTS still works even though the wires are on the same poles. Not sure how to explain that.

  2. By coincidence, I received the following message via email from Hans Riemer, Montgomery County Council Member on Friday, August 3

    Dear Resident,

    In my conversations with Montgomery County residents, the driving question they have is, Where is the accountability for Pepco??

    Who is going to make sure that the company will improve its service and that the unacceptable service we have received since 2004 will change?

    There is an answer to this question. Accountability lies first with the PSC and second with the Governor.

    And they have the tools to make Pepco change. Here is what we need to do.

    What the PSC Can Do
    The Maryland Public Services Commission (PSC) has the power to regulate Pepco. In response to our dire circumstances and the outcry from our residents, the PSC has established a framework that can solve our problem, if they follow through:

    Pepco will be required by the PSC to reach “average” service standards within 4 years.
    If Pepco does not meet those standards, the PSC will fine Pepco.
    Pepco will not be eligible to charge ratepayers to “catch up” for its neglect in the past.
    The PSC will reduce Pepco’s profit or rate-of-return in order to fund improvements without putting the entire burden on ratepayers.

    In a recent appearance before the County Council, PSC Chair Douglas Nazarian described the commission’s new standards for Pepco. He also promised to aggressively enforce them. Nazarian told the council that the PSC expected to see better performance for Pepco.

    “And if we don’t… I promise you, not only as a regulator and as someone who shares the public’s frustration, the council’s frustration with the outages of the last couple years, but as someone who is charged with the obligation under Maryland law to enforce these regulations to hold the company accountable, I promise you that we will do that. And we will do that in a very meaningful and very significant and, if necessary, very painful way.”

    This framework that the PSC has established will only work if they follow through on it. Already we are seeing Pepco fighting back aggressively, arguing that if they don’t get higher rate hikes we won’t get better service. We will need to keep the PSC on the job by:

    Ensuring that fines are consistently large enough to force Pepco to change.
    Ensuring that Pepco doesn’t charge ratepayers for their past mistakes, by blocking unfair rate hikes and reducing Pepco’s “rate of return on equity.”
    Raising the service standards that Pepco must meet above “average.”

    What the Governor Can Do
    The Governor is a key player in this reform process because the Governor decides who serves on the PSC and can make it clear what expectations he has for their actions. In response to the crisis, the Governor has launched an executive review of our electricity system. While this is indeed urgent, dealing with Pepco will require a different set of actions than what might be required to improve utility reliability in response to climate change. With Pepco, the problem is the company’s culture and management, not climate change. The solution is tough regulation.

    The Governor can:

    State clear support for the Pepco-oriented regulatory agenda outlined above.
    Only nominate PSC members who clearly support this agenda.
    Help reform how the PSC engages with residents so that we can be heard, as we work with the Governor to hold Pepco accountable. From a resident’s perspective, I believe the PSC is impenetrable, and this is part of the reason that the crisis at Pepco was not recognized by the PSC for years.

    What You Can Do
    Not only the PSC and the Governor, but all elected officials at every level should support a tough regulatory agenda for Pepco. The 2014 election cycle is underway, and it will be essential to combat Pepco by obtaining clear commitments to support this agenda from statewide and local candidates.

    You can do three things to hold Pepco accountable right now.

    1. In the aftermath of the derecho storm on June 29, I launched a petition calling for the PSC to be fired for not dealing more aggressively with Pepco. Nearly 5,000 county and state residents have signed that petition. By adding your name to this petition, you will receive communications about ongoing efforts to hold Pepco accountable.

    2. The PSC is holding a hearing on August 7 at 7 PM in the County Council’s hearing room. Our address is 100 Maryland Avenue in Rockville and the hearing room is on the third floor. This is your chance to tell the PSC directly what you think of Pepco’s storm performance. Please attend.

    3. Several Montgomery County residents are working with other residents to organize a grassroots organization to hold Pepco accountable. You can contact Abbe Milstein at powerupmontco@gmail.com. An organization of this kind can help give Pepco customers a direct voice and help hold the company, the PSC and all political candidates accountable on this issue in 2014.

    Finally, there is the question of revoking Pepco’s franchise and establishing a publicly-owned distribution system. I am a strong supporter of pursuing a public power option, because I believe it would save Montgomery County taxpayers countless millions of dollars that are now diverted to shareholders. Our first step, though, must continue to be solving the problem at hand: holding Pepco accountable. Let’s make that happen.

    Thank you for participating.

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