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Testimony, Complaints Heard at Derecho Storm Hearing

The Maryland Public Service Commission has conducted a series of hearings as part of its investigation into how the state's utility companies responded to the storm.

Baltimore Gas and Electric Company customers in Baltimore County voiced their grievances with the state’s largest utility Thursday night, demanding changes in future restoration efforts.

The Maryland Public Service Commission, which is currently investigating the state’s power suppliers’ storm preparedness, sought input in Towson, following the late June derecho storm that left 748,000 BGE customers without power. 

It took BGE eight days to fully bring back onto the grid. 

In Baltimore County, speakers—most of whom had experiences with outages lasting beyond four days—said they were frustrated with the company. 

“This is clearly an indication that the Towson area requires much more attention from BGE than it’s getting,” Del. Steve Lafferty (D-42) said. “It’s not just Parkville and Pikesville, but Towson and the other neighborhoods that are inside the beltway.

“There is room for a lot more improvement,” he continued. “Over the past six weeks I’ve heard hundreds of stories and dozens and dozens of complaints about a whole range of information.”

Lafferty suggested the commission require better tree trimming maintenance from BGE, systems upgrades and better communication with its customers. 

BGE spokesman Rob Gould stood out in the hallway listening to speakers one-by-one tell their stories. The hearing in Towson Thursday night was the sixth of eight hearings conducted by the Public Service Commission.

“The goal of this is to enhance service and restoration efforts in the future,” Gould said.  

He was quick to point out that he did believe lessons learned from Hurricane Irene were implemented during the derecho disaster, which could have been much worse, he said. 

“It may not look this way ... but if you look at the derecho we restored power to about the same number of customers who lost power during Irene,” Gould said. “It was about 760,000 customers. We did it we about a thousand less workers, many of whom even didn’t get into the restoration efforts for about two and a half days because nobody could get extra resources."

“That’s not solace to the people that were out of service for past four, five, six, seven days,” he continued. “We’re not tone deaf. We are here to hear the comments. What we’re hearing tonight is consistent with what we’re heard in other parts of the territory.” 

Gould said power was restored to about 80 percent of the affected homes within four days. Those testifying were largely among the remaining 20 percent.

“We understand that they are not happy,” he said. 

Sandra Frier, of Pikesville, spoke first, indicating that the derecho storm left her without power from 11:30 p.m. on June 29—the night the storm hit—until 5:30 p.m. on July 5. 

“That’s six days,” she said. “I’m here to make a case for putting lines underground.” 

Her feelings were echoed by a line of dissatisfied BGE customers, fed up by recurring, long-lasting outages. Some offered suggestions that would enhance BGE’s restoration efforts, while most spoke of the hardships they have endured during the outages, caused both by Hurricane Irene and the derecho storm. 

Gregory Keene, of Parkville, spoke of the horror he faced after his power went out, forcing him awake when a device he uses for his sleep apnea condition suddenly shut off. He commented that of the six major storms he has experienced while living in Parkville, his apartment has lost power "80 percent of the time."

It quickly became apparent that a series of isolated incidents across the central corridor of the county—namely Towson, Pikesville and Parkville—weren’t as isolated as residents first thought. 

“One elderly, wheel chair-bound gentleman was trapped because his electric chair lift did not work and he could not navigate the stairs,” Georgia Vogelsang, a Timonium resident, said. “Another neighbor returned to find their hard wood kitchen floor had buckled from the water that had thawed from their freezer.”

Vogelsang suggested that BGE should either be rewarded for its successes in the field or penalized for failures. 

“I have been required to buy a whole house generator, just so I can survive in his neighborhood,” Vogelsang told the commission. “It is beyond belief to me that in a major metropolitan area that the power supply is so erratic that I cannot work and cannot literally live without a backup generator.”

Gould said BGE has taken steps to improve its power restoration efforts. New tree and vegetation standards were supposed to go into effect on June 1, although the utility has "not had time to implement those," he said. 

Gould also noted that once installation of the new BGE Smart Meters was completed in 2014, the company would get a much clearer picture of where the outages were occurring and at what frequency. Still, residents must contact BGE for technicians to know where exactly outages have taken place.

About 1.3 million calls were fielded during the derecho disaster alone, Gould said. 

"Areas with frequent outages should be targeted for correction," Vogelsang said. "It does not require Smart Meters to identify lines with repeated failures. ... The best course for corrections can be left up to BGE, but the current Band Aid approach of simply reacting after every storm is not a solution to the problem.” 

Residents who weren’t able to attend the hearing but wish to have their opinions or experiences known, may send written comments by Sept. 10 to the Public Service Commission at 6 St. Paul St., 16th Floor, Baltimore, MD 21202.

Tell us: What are your suggestions for enhancing BGE's service? What kind of experiences have you had with the utility? Start the conversation in the comments section below. 

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Allie August 17, 2012 at 02:14 PM
Eastsider - living in Howard County, I can tell you the last 5 or 6 times a large tree has fallen on a line it has been on county land. The homeowners can't do anything about it, besides complain to the county that will only come out and remove the tree if it is rotting or struck by lighting. Our neighborhood in particular has lost power 8 times this year, once being during the derecho. Most of the time we lose power, it is bright and sunny without a cloud in the sky. The last 3 times we lost power we were told there was an accident on the main road that knocked out the power. After driving up there and talking with the crew actually fixing the box, we discovered there were no accidents and it essentially just "tripped." Tell me that's not being overloaded. BGE continually fixes things and refuses to replace failing equipment. We lost power for 7 days during Irene last year, and according to BGE, our power is more reliable then ever. Must be why we've only lost it 8 times this year as compared to 11 last year.
Eastsider August 17, 2012 at 02:46 PM
All I am saying ALL property owners need to be held accountable. If your trees on your property caused an outage then you pay. Why should I be held to and pay a higher premium if I've done the right thing and others haven't? Keep the rates as is and if a tree on a property causes a disruption in service that property owner is charged for repairs and cleanup. With that said I do agree with you BGE needs to step up to the plate and upgrade their systems.
Martin W. Lotz III August 17, 2012 at 05:17 PM
What shocked me during the restoration efforts was all the parked BGE trouble trucks at their Cockeysville yards and all of the parked Lewis Tree Service (BGE's tree contractor in the Baltimore Area) that were in the Lowes parking lot. All of the TV commercials that said, "all available crews" failed to mention that by available crews they meant the people who were called in. I also heard and suspect it to be true that when they call in out of state workers BGE is reimbursed for those workers as part of disaster aid so it is not in their interest to pay local workers to do the repairs.
Buzz Beeler August 19, 2012 at 02:31 AM
They got caught off guard and had trouble rounding up enough crews to respond along with a solid master plan to deal with the suddenness of the storm. Their spokes person said as much in an interview.
ddbs00 August 19, 2012 at 10:21 AM
It's a good idea to keep a battery operated radio on hand...

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