Our service is awful, so we’re going to start charging more.
That’s the takeaway from this week’s Pepco news -- first, a massive Washington Post special report concluding that the region’s power provider offers some of the nation’s worst service, then Pepco’s Monday announcement that it will seek rate increases to pay for power outage prevention improvements.
Pepco has long faulted the area’s trees for power outages, claiming that D.C. has the fourth-densest tree canopy in the U.S. -- the Forest Service doubts that. But while 80 percent of Pepco’s Maryland customers get power from aboveground wires, two-thirds of District customers’ power comes from buried lines, so trees are not always a factor. The Post found that Pepco equipment failures, not trees, caused the most sustained power interruptions in the last year, and Pepco records showed equipment failures to be the cause of outages nearly twice as often as trees.
What about weather? We did have several major snowstorms last year, as well as several violent summer storms. But the Post study did not factor in weather-related outages. And still, the average Pepco customer experienced 70 percent more outages than other big city residents -- and the power stayed off twice as long.
Pepco announced a six-point improvement plan Monday, which includes moving more cables underground, cutting back trees, and upgrading equipment. It will cost $200 million over five years.
It’s a move in the right direction, and the extra dollar a month is worth it. But in some respects, Pepco’s attitude is as big a problem as its service.
After major outages and long delays in power restoration over the summer, Pepco Senior Vice President Mike Sullivan told Maryland officials, “I think we did a reasonable job of restoring power. I’m not embarrassed by what we did.” Pepco executive David Velazquez similarly said Pepco “responded properly” to outages.
Even yesterday, Pepco continued to suggest that its customers are being unrealistic. Pepco regional president Thomas Graham said he does not want customers to lower their expectations. Instead, he said, “We’re asking our customers to level their expectations. There was a lot of conversation about, ‘it took too long to come back.’ Well, how long does it take to replace 43 miles of cable? It takes quite a while to do that.”
“Level their expectations”? The implication is that the expectations were too high -- the expectations that it would not take days for a major electricity provider to restore service in one of the nation’s largest and densest metropolitan areas. Customers will accept the small price increase if it actually improves service – but perhaps Pepco should “upgrade” its leadership team as well.
Follow P.J. Orvetti on Twitter at @PJOinDC