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Analysis: Public Gets Its Say On Pepco Policy At PRC Hearings

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The Maryland Public Service Commission holds its first of two meetings on Pepco's response to two storms that knocked out power to some customers for up to a week. Tonight's hearing will take place in Rockville, Md. and will focus on the utility's response in Montgomery County, which is almost universally derided as substandard. The second meeting will take place in Prince George's County. WAMU 88.5 Maryland reporter Matt Bush spoke with host Pat Brogan about what residents can expect to see from these meetings.

Who will the Public Service Commission hear from tonight, and what will they hear?

"They'll hear from the public — anyone is allowed to speak at these, you have to sign up to do so. They'll hear from plenty of politicians, both local and at the state level. The PRC holds these hearings after lengthy power outages and storms that cause severe events in terms of outages with the state's utilities. Then they investigate and then will issue recommendations and, at times, take action if they feel the utility's response was poor."

A similar hearing was held two years ago after a series of 2010 thunderstorms. What will be different this time?

"I would expect that people will be much angrier tonight than they were two years ago. Two years ago, the hearing was held in the Montgomery County Council chambers, just as it will this evening, and at that point, it was just being discovered how poor Pepco's performance was and how poorly it did compared to other utilities across the nation. In the past two years, Pepco has spent a lot of money and spent a lot of money advertising on its supposed improvements in its service reliability. Two years later, many of the same issues are occuring and this storm showed that Pepco isn't as far along in their efforts to improve their service as they say they are."

It's not just anger at Pepco from county leaders and residents, but much of the anger is directed at the PRC. Why is that?

"A growing number of people in Montgomery County and probably in the entire Pepco service region are beginning to view getting the utility to improve as a lost cause. In Maryland, the PRC, the power that regulates utilities and the rates they charge customers. A lot of people look to them asking why they are allowed to do this, and why they haven't taken stronger action. Pepco was fined $1 million last year, which may seem like a lot at first, but for a company as big as Pepco, $1 million isn't very much.  A lot of people are starting to say that the Public Service Commission has to start doing things. One Montgomery County councilman said all PRC members should resign... You have some senators saying Pepco should be fined perhaps up to $100 million, because they feel that's a number that would actually get Pepco's attention."

"There are others saying that the Public Service Commission needs to open up and do more of their business in front of the public. It's long known as a very behind-the-scenes and very difficult regulatory agency to get ahold of and get information from. A lot of people are now saying that this is the one body that can force Pepco to do things, and people want to see them do things like making their service reliability better, since we're two years from that first round of storms that started this and not much has changed."

What happens after tonight's meeting?

"They'll hold another meeting tomorrow night in Prince George's County, which will focus on Pepco. Next week, the PRC holds four hearings in the BG&E service area. They'll hold a few more later this month in other areas of the state that are served by different utilities. And that concludes the public hearings, and they will continue their investigations and come up with their recommendations. The PRC is known for taking its time on things, so don't expect any decisions or any reports, investigations, or possible fines until next year."

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