Early Tuesday morning, residents in several Ellicott City neighborhoods briefly lost power.
The timing of the outage provided a brief reprieve of laughter during a three-hour hearing later that evening with the Public Service Commission in which residents discussed the ways they said unreliable power service had affected their lives.
The hearing is part of a PSC in some of the older Ellicott City neighborhoods.
David Rubin has lived in the Font Hill neighborhood for two decades during which, he testified, he’s had “at least 100 outages from as brief as five seconds up to eight consecutive days, following .”
He told Public Utility Law Judge David L. Moore that power outages are particularly hazardous to his health because of sleep apnea, which requires the use of a BiPaAP machine, which helps him breath through the night.
“Ironically, I was awakened this very day at 6:12 a.m.,” he said, unable to finish his sentence as the 250 or so attendees broke out in applause and laughter.
He continued: “By a five-to-10-second outage. I looked out the window only to notice it was a beautiful day, with no noticeable wind at all.”
About three hundred people signed up to speak at Tuesday night’s hearing and at least dozens more submitted written testimony.
Lost expectations, lost money, health hazards
The PSC scheduled the hearing in response to a complaint (attached) filed by Cathy Eshmont, a Dunloggin resident who has spearheaded Reliability4HoCo in attempts to fix what she and residents of nearby neighborhoods say has been unreliable service by BGE.
Rubin was not the only person to testify about the health hazards of outages. Christa Bucks-Camacho said that she had gone through a medical notification process with BGE, filling out a form with a doctor’s note, alerting them to her disability. “To this day,” she said, “BGE has yet to call my home or cell when the power goes out.”
“It is nearly impossible to work, take the kids to school and go out to eat when my wheelchair is not charged,” she said.
Others testified about loss of expectations, money lost when power outages led to spoiled food, money spent on generators and gas, and, in an unexpected result of having solar panels, a loss of income when the sun is shining brightest.
“Interestingly, our solar panels are not allowed to function during a grid outage,” Lawrence G. Rendell testified. He and two other residents said that they lost potential income that they would have made by selling energy back to the grid. “Ironically,” he said, “after Hurricane Irene and the derecho … there were ideal generating days that were lost.”
Two residents did address Moore to say that they were satisfied with the level of service they received. David Sikora, an Exelon employee (Exelon owns BGE) said that he had experienced outages during severe weather, but otherwise “reliability in my section of Beaverbrook is reasonable and sufficient.”
Holly Lash, a BGE employee, said she has lived in Ellicott City for 24 years and lost power once, during Hurricane Isabel in 2003. “I’ve had extremely reliable power,” she said. “That’s all I have to share.”
Asked if BGE had asked the two to testify, spokesman Rob Gould said the company had not. “Do I know them? Sure,” he said, but they testified as residents of a community that is home to plenty of BGE employees.
One of the recurring themes of testimony was the substantial tree cover – one of the reasons many people move to the more established communities in Ellicott City, many of which were noted in the complaint filed with the PSC.
“No amount of tree trimming is going to ‘hurricane-proof’ this community,” Gould said. Other reasons for outages may not be as obvious as a tree knocking down a power line, he added. Cars into trees, animals on lines ... all, he said, can lead to disruptions in service.
BGE is still in the process of implementing reliability improvement plans, Gould said. And though residents have charged that these improvements should have come proactively in areas that have unreliable service, BGE maintains there aren't any egregious reliability issues.
“Reliability in this area is above average,” Gould said, pointing to a line in the company’s formal response to the complaint (page 3, attached): “… it is important to note that [Cathy] Eshmont has not experienced a sustained outage since April 28, 2011 -not even as a result of Hurricane Irene in late August/early September of last year.” She did sustain a three-day outage after the derecho.
“I’m not going to dismiss people’s opinions,” Gould said of residents’ portrayal of their service, “but the PSC process is fact-based.”
Those facts will include testimony from several Ellicott City residents who repeatedly pointed out that while Howard County is the third-richest county, according to the U.S. Census, and, as often pointed out by local politicians, was voted the second best place to live by Money Magazine, it did not compare with utility services offered around the world.
One of several well-traveled Ellicott City residents to make comparisons was Robert Ostergaard, who said he had lived overseas in a number of different places for work. “We’ve had lots of experience with lots of grids,” he said.
Those experiences, included a year in Taiwan during which, he said “despite a typhoon, we didn’t have any outages.” Rural Yorkshire, the Australian outback, the list went on and nowhere, he testified, did he experience outages as frequently as he does when he’s living in Ellicott City.
Tuesday night's testimony, analysis of BGE data, evaluations of remediation programs and other evidence will be gathered into a report to be presented to the PSC board by the end of the year.
“Obviously there are folks here with a lot of concerns,” Moore said after the hearing, “the commission will take those into consideration as it contemplates this case.”
More than taking their testimony into consideration, residents came with plenty of their own ideas for actions BGE could take, including burying more of the lines underground. Maryanne Maher, at the Font Hill Community Association, also asked for “adequate public engagement” to become the norm; annual reliability updates; and proactive use of more technologies.
Carol DeCarlucci, who said that her “dream” of moving to Dunloggin from Elkridge had turned into a nightmare because of the outages, had a direct request of BGE “I would appreciate it if BGE respected me the way I respect them by paying their bill every month on time.”
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This article has been edited to indicate Cathy Eshmont lives in Dunloggin.