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PSC to keep the heat on Maryland utilities

Maryland’s power companies are restoring electricity more promptly than they expected to, said Maryland Public Service Commission Chairman Douglas R.M. Nazarian, almost a week after an unexpected storm put more than 1 million people in the dark.

Chairman Douglas R.M. Nazarian said that Public Service Commission will soon hold public hearings for feedback on the performance of utilities after last week’s storm.

Despite the better-than-expected rate of restoration, Nazarian said that “we are not satisfied, we are not slowing … until everyone is back on,” and that all power companies will be required to submit a major storm report in coming weeks.

The “storm that will not be named,” as he called it, caused more power outages than Hurricane Irene in 2011, Nazarian said at a news conference Thursday at the PSC’s downtown headquarters. As of 6 p.m. Thursday, 58,491 customers remained without power, according to the Maryland Emergency Management Agency, meaning that 95 percent had been restored,

Nazarian also addressed a recent letter from Sen. James C. Rosapepe, D-Prince George’s and Anne Arundel, which asked that the PSC launch a study to determine which power lines should be moved underground to prevent outages.

Nazarian said underground lines are better insulated from storms like Friday’s, citing a 2003 General Assembly task force study. In the short term, that could mean fewer outages.

The same study, however, stated that the long-term reliability of underground power lines is “more questionable,” and that, should an outage occur, restoring power to underground lines generally takes more time.

The cost of burying lines is the most significant deterrent, said Nazarian, as the task force determined an average cost of about $900,000 per mile to move lines underground.

Peter G. Ligon, corporate secretary of Baltimore-based Ligon & Ligon Utility Contractors, was a member of the task force, and said that this cost has likely increased by 5 to 7 percent since 2003.

“If they’re trying to resolve storm outage issues, being underground is a better place to have your cabling,” said Ligon, but “the longer you wait I would say the more difficult it would become and the more expensive. … I just can’t see the rate payers paying it.”

“There’s no doubt it’s going to be really expensive to do it,” said Nazarian, adding that moving all power lines underground could cost customers $340 to $415 per year on their electric bills and would take between 15 and 20 years.

Rosapepe said that while burying lines is expensive, the benefits would outweigh the costs for Maryland residents.

“The problem is that the utilities have never taken into account the costs to the customers … when the business can’t operate … the costs of all the food that rots in the refrigerator … that’s the real cost of keeping these lines above ground,” he said in an interview.

Nazarian said that PSC will soon hold hearings for feedback, and that each power company will be required to submit a major storm report detailing the actions taken to restore power to customers.

But reviews by the power companies and PSC are not enough, said Del. Patrick L. McDonough, R-Baltimore County and Harford, who said he will call for a commission to audit the state’s major electric companies.

“There’s just a lot of questions that need to be answered by experts who are independent,” he said.

The condition of existing power lines, communication with customers and the possibility of undergrounding lines are a few of many issues McDonough said a commission should study.

The PSC will not require reports from the utilities until three weeks after power is restored. Until then, Nazarian said, “we don’t at this point have the data to grade fairly.”

Nazarian said he could not comment on the pending Pepco rate hike on which the Public Service Commission should make a decision July 13. He did, however, say that in rate increase cases, reliability of the company is always reviewed.

PSC fined Pepco $1 million in December for poor system maintenance, and for the frequency and duration of power outages.