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Public Service Commission orders power utilities to improve

Electric utilities will be ordered to improve their distribution systems to make them more reliable after last summer’s derecho storm when nearly 1 million customers lost power, but the Maryland Public Service Commission said Wednesday that it would not impose any fines or penalties.

The commission noted a “significant and unsatisfactory disconnect” between the public’s expectations of how reliable the system should be and its ability to meet those expectations. And while the commission said utilities must respond better to outages that occur after severe storms, it found no basis at the moment to impose civil penalties over the utilities’ preparation or response to last June’s storm.

The commission ordered the utilities to file plans by May 31 on how they will improve over the next five years. The PSC reviewed the performance of Baltimore Gas and Electric, Delmarva Power & Light, Potomac Electric, Potomac Edison, the Southern Maryland Electric Cooperative and the Choptank Electric Cooperative.

The commission also said that utilities must improve communications, review staffing levels and develop strategies to address the needs of the medically fragile and the elderly.

Companies were taking “incremental steps to improve reliability,” including moving distribution lines underground, but more work needs to be done, the commission said.

“We have determined, however, that the companies should make a number of further improvements in the shorter-term to improve reliability, and conduct a comprehensive study of long-term improvements to improve reliability to an even greater extent,” the report said.

The derecho carried powerful straight-line winds to the state from the Midwest. Trees and tree limbs pulled down overhead power lines, knocking out electric to hundreds of thousands of people who had to endure high temperatures without air conditioning and saw their groceries spoil without refrigeration. That prompted some to relocate to hotels and put at risk from extreme heat the elderly and those with medical conditions, the report said.

“Even before all of the storm damage was repaired and service was restored to all customers, two things were immediately evident: one, the electric utility distribution infrastructure in Maryland, built up over the previous hundred years, is not resilient enough to withstand unscathed a storm the magnitude of the derecho; and two, a public increasingly dependent on electricity to meet their daily needs is not satisfied with the vulnerability of the current infrastructure,” the report said.

Sen. James Rosapepe, D-Prince George’s, said Wednesday he was disappointed the PSC didn’t take stronger action.

“I mean, people lost hundreds of millions of dollars in damage and lost profits and lost wages and in spoiled food,” Rosapepe said, “and the PSC imposed no fines, required no undergrounding of power lines and required no surge reserve for promptly getting electricity back up. They required more studies by the utilities themselves.”

Rosapepe said that for some reasons, the PSC isn’t willing to take responsibility.

“The PSC is supposed to be there to represent the public, the economy, the businesses, the residents, the consumers, and for some reason it bows before the utilities, and it’s very disappointing, because this problem is not going to go away.”