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Power Outrage

BGE’s reliability is worse than rural utilities in the Middle East. Does the PSC care?

Photo: Jill Smokler, License: N/A

Jill Smokler

A smashed transformer lay where it fell, at the corner of chillham rd. and cross country blvd. in Mount washington, several days after the storm that brought it down.


Power outages still plagued large swaths of Baltimore City and the county last week, six days after a line of thunderstorms packing 70-mph winds knocked out power to about 1 million homes and businesses in Maryland.

With the temperature soaring toward 100 degrees on Thursday, July 5, Public Service Commission Chairman Douglass Nazarian held a press conference to tell reporters how bad the storm was (like a hurricane), that the commission would not rest until everyone has power restored, and that, after that, there’ll be hearings.

“The greatest work remains to be done in Baltimore City, Baltimore County, and Montgomery County,” Nazarian said. At the time, 73,000 people in the state remained without power, about 50,000 of those in northern Baltimore City and the lower part of the county.

The extended Baltimore outage raised questions about Baltimore Gas and Electric’s line maintenance, its overall reliability, and the PSC’s role in allowing things to get this bad. Nazarian said he didn’t know how BGE’s reliability stacked up to other utilities. He said he did not know how BGE’s maintenance staffing had changed over the past 15 years, though he said that, in the past five years, the company had not been downsizing its line crews.

As Nazarian spoke to the press, Mount Washington residents were still without power and seething about contradictory statements from BGE and a lack of advocacy on their behalf by political officials.

“Every time I call, I get a different answer,” said Mount Washington resident Diane Glauber from her office phone in the District of Columbia, where she works as a civil rights attorney. “Today, one of the answers was, ‘It should be on now, you just need to reset the circuit.’ That’s obviously incorrect.”

Glauber said she’s lived in her house since 1994 and has never before had an outage for more than a day. She called BGE each day since the power went off on Friday night, June 29, and said she got different estimates of when the lights would go back on each day.

Other residents were told, after days of reporting outages and seeking answers from BGE, that no outages had been reported in their area.

Glauber took her two children to a hotel on July 4 just to get relief from the heat. “I’m incredibly frustrated,” Glauber said. “I’ve called the Public Service Commission. I will be filing a complaint.”

Chris Bush tried that last year, after Tropical Storm Irene knocked out power for several days at a Catonsville house he rents out. He caught BGE lying about how fast it restored power after that storm. “I was monitoring, twice a day, their storm outage site—noon and midnight,” Bush says by telephone from his home in Kentucky. “I noticed on day eight, around midnight, they still had several hundred people that were out. And at midnight, all of a sudden, it said everyone was restored. But the 300 people who were still out, they [now] said it was not storm-related.”

Eight days was a magic number, Bush says, because that’s how long the utility took to restore everyone after Hurricane Isabel in 2003.

The PSC agreed with Bush on that matter, Bush says, but it rejected his petition to join an ongoing case regarding the utility. Bush appealed that to Circuit Court, where the case was dismissed on a timing technicality. He says he has appealed.

The problem, Bush says, is BGE’s over-reliance on imported technicians to handle power outages.

“If BGE were tasked with fire protection, they’d be waiting for a fire to break out, and then they’d call people from out of state, and by the time they get here, the house has burned down,” Bush says. “I think they need a much larger crew on standby.”

A BGE spokesperson, Rob Gould, said by email that he could not say how many line staff the utility employs today or a decade ago, because of the storm: “We would be happy to share the information after we return to normal operations (the people who would pull it have storm roles and couldn’t pull now if I wanted them to do so).”

Numbers released by the PSC indicate that BGE had 2,776 line workers on staff as of July 5. It had brought in 1,490 more from out of state, with 354 still en route. The speed at which the utility brought workers in—a crucial indicator of how fast the utility can get things fixed—was not available, as PSC figures began on July 3. Strangely, the reported figures were higher on that day—4,500 total, with 1,300 imported from out of state. If these figures are correct, 424 BGE employees who were working on July 3 were not working on July 5.

Baltimore and Harford County State Delegate Pat McDonough demanded that BGE submit to a performance audit of its operations. “Some of the old timers say they used to have 7,500 people on staff doing line work and tree work,” McDonough says, adding that BGE ought to train local workers to act as reserves. “They have an excellent training facility,” he says. “They could pay people only when they’re needed.”

At his own press conference, PSC Chair Nazarian said he did not know how many on-staff line workers BGE has now, or how many more or less it had 10 years ago. As for BGE’s reliability compared with other utilities, Nazarian said he did not know and that, because utilities operate in different territories, “a side-by-side comparison is difficult to make in any intellectually honest way.”

There are two metrics widely used in the industry: SAIFI, which stands for System Average Interruption Frequency Index; and SAIDI, which is short for System Average Interruption Duration Index. SAIDI takes all the hours of power outage by every customer affected and divides it into the customer base. So a 1 means that, on average, every customer had one hour of power-outage over the full year.

At 4.09, BGE’s 2005-2009 average reliability placed it in the lowest 25 percent of U.S.-based utilities, according to Bush. A 2006 study by Power Plus Engineering found SAIDI figures for utilities in the Midwest between .8 and 1.4 for urban/rural areas, and 2.0 for rural areas. Scotland’s utilities scored .9, as did urban utilities serving countries in the Middle East. BGE’s four-year average SAIDI score was significantly worse than the scores obtained by utilities serving even rural areas of the Middle East, which scored 3.6.

In a follow-up interview, Nazarian explained that SAIDI and SAIFI were not as standardized as they first appear: “There are slight but meaningful variations in the way these metrics are calculated” by different utilities and different regulators. He says the PSC has new standards that all Maryland utilities will have to meet, and that they are more stringent than those employed by most other states.

On Friday afternoon, July 6, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake extended the city’s state of emergency and sent community outreach teams to North Baltimore neighborhoods to distribute ice, water, flashlights, and food.

“They’re going to be asking for a huge rate increase in a couple months,” McDonough says of BGE. “We need to say if you don’t support my idea—a performance audit, full disclosure—that means you’re satisfied with the status quo and current performance. And when I say ‘you,’ I mean the PSC and other public officials.”

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