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Commentary By Sekou Biddle: Regulating Pepco

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Pepco, the power company is facing intense scrutiny from customers, government leaders and regulators because the utility’s efforts to restore power after the latest snow storm once again came up short. Commentator and at-large D.C. Council Member Sekou Biddle says it's time for the District to reconsider how it regulates Pepco:

Like tens of thousands of area residents, my house went dark when the snowstorm hit. My family was lucky. The heat and lights came back on the next morning.

But it was just the beginning of the blackout for thousands of our neighbors who ended up staying with friends, enriching hotel operators, or huddling under blankets for days.

People were angry, but strangely, not all that surprised. Pepco's dismal power restoration record means D.C. residents expect the worst. After the latest debacle, the people of the District deserve a major change in course both by Pepco and by those who oversee and regulate the power monopoly.

Here's how we start:

First, the D.C. Public Service Commission should freeze electricity rates. During the past decade, the average residential electric bill in the District went from $44 per month in 2000, to $98 per month in 2010.

When Pepco rolled out an ambitious infrastructure improvement plan, it indicated that another rate increase would likely be required to get the job done.

That's because the company has found lots of other ways to spend money.

The company reported profits of more than $200 million each year since 2004. While Pepco's customers were stoking their fireplaces to keep warm after storms, the company's stockholders and executives were lighting up cigars.

Pepco's top eight executives collected $12.7 million in 2009, and the company paid out $238 million in dividends last year.

A rate increase? That would be an insult to Pepco's customers.

The District must also conduct more aggressive oversight of the company. The D.C. Council has ordered Pepco officials to appear at a hearing to answer for its latest so-called storm restoration efforts. So has the Public Service Commission.

These hearings should mark the beginning of a new, more intense level of scrutiny from all levels of government and from the public. It is extremely important that Pepco customers who suffered through the long outages tell their stories.

Finally, the District should pass legislation that holds Pepco accountable for its failures. A bill proposed by Ward 3 Council Member Mary Cheh would establish reliability and performance standards for Pepco and impose fines if the company can't deliver. The fines would be returned to customers in the form of rebates or lower rates.

Absent government-enforced accountability measures, Pepco can simply brush off customer complaints and focus solely on profits.

For far too long, D.C. residents have expected poor performance from Pepco. It is time to step up and demand that the company provide the service we pay for -- or give us our money back.

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