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Montgomery County Public Power Support Growing

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Eric Hensal talks about public power at the Silver Spring Civic Center Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012.
Eric Hensal talks about public power at the Silver Spring Civic Center Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012.

While much of the country tuned in to the first presidential debate Wednesday night, around 20 people packed a room at the Silver Spring Civic Center to hear about public power.

Over the past 5 to 10 years, the idea of such a utility in Montgomery County was rarely considered or even discussed. But that has changed.

"The Derecho really focused people," says Eric Hensal, who organized Public Power For Montgomery. He brought experts from the American Public Power Association to talk to those who gathered in Silver Spring.

Their point, and Hensal's, is that a potential public utility would provide better service because any profits it would generate would go to infrastructure upgrades, not shareholders. In addition, the county government would own the public utility.

Hensal says Pepco's priority is the opposite: "As far as I'm concerned, Pepco is a slumlord of electricity. They have a system, they're going to squeeze as much money out of it as they can, and they're never going to fix the boiler, right?"

But the biggest roadblock for a publicly owned utility is that the county would have to get the approval of the General Assembly in Annapolis to seek it — a highly unlikely proposition. But Hensal thinks there are other ways, and earlier this week, County Council President Roger Berliner outlined one legal possibility.

"Pepco itself acquired this franchise from another company," he says. "It bought it. So, to me that makes it more like a commodity. Pepco didn't have to go to the state legislature to acquire the franchise. Why would our county have to do so?"

Berliner, who wants to study the idea of public power for the county further, has also said in the past that Pepco officials have told him personally they are confident that such a utility will never come to fruition in Montgomery County.

Supporters of creating a publicly owned utility for Montgomery County say yesterday's announcement from Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley regarding a plan calling for surcharges to ratepayers every time a utility seeks to upgrade its infrastructure only highlight the need for public power.

Hansal's says O'Malley's plan is favorable to Pepco. "They get front-loaded money. They get money before they do any of these sorts of repairs that we're asking them to do. I don't know about most people, but [Pepco] has not acted in a very trustworthy manner so far. I don't know how moving forward with this would be very fair to the ratepayer."

O'Malley's plan will be forwarded to the state public service commission, which regulates utilities in Maryland.

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