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Middle Class Ordeal

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Folks,
My wife and I survived a middle class ordeal over the past few days since a powerful hurricane-force thunderstorm rolled through Potomac on Sunday afternoon. More than 300,000 families lost power in our area as a result of this storm's impact on PEPCO, the privately-owned monopoly power utility in our area.

I was born in DC and have seen the wonders of the latter half of the 20th century, our spanking shiny new power company's highly reliable system which expanded tenfold in the 50s, 60s, and 70s into the megalith it is today. PEPCO sports some of the highest rates for power in the world, about 25 cents per kilowatt-hour (kWh), roughly half of which is for billing and distribution costs. For many years, their rates reflected a well-run, economical utility with service costs under 4 cents per kWh, and with outages so rare that no one thought about the possibility of blackouts. Some record checking showed that before 2010 we had only seen less than 24 hours of total outages over a 38-year period in our residence, a reliability rating of better than 99.99%!

With two days' outage during Snowmageddon (we had over five feet of snow last winter) and another four days this week, PEPCO has now dropped to 97.14% uptime since January 1, 2010, an increase in failure rate of more than 300:1.

PEPCO's reliability is now about as bad as third world nations during multi-week hurricanes, massive earthquakes, tsunamis, and rampant civil wars.

This situation is remarkable only in that PEPCO supplies the power to the most important city in the world, Washington, DC. It is truly fitting that after trillions was spent on beefing up national security based here in the seat of power, total loss of power has become the mode of life.

The "little people" (so-called by the BP CEO) are now perfectly named as the powerless.

Back to my wife and I, my first task was to call in our power outage to the PEPCO emergency line. It was busy. We tried back for fifteen hours before we got a recording. A few hours later, the refrigerator started to smell. You can go about 24 hours before the food will spoil with a modern fridge. I realized that I would need to find a source of dry ice (frozen carbon dioxide) very soon. I looked up "dry ice" in the yellow pages and called the only supplier in a 20-mile radius. They had a line of 200 customers around the block vying for their last few thousand pounds of the precious substance. I went anyway, and waited for three hours only to be turned away as the last shovelfuls were dolled out within sight of the last fifty people in line. The next shipment would be in twelve hours. I came back the next morning and waited in line until I was allowed to buy 20 pounds. It would last for about another 24 hours, since so much of our food had already partially defrosted. All this time, we kept calling PEPCO to no avail. The estimated repair time, as of Wednesday afternoon, was Friday at midnight. I needed to buy more dry ice, and went back for another $42 worth, about 20 pounds.


As an aside, PEPCO used to provide free dry ice distributed at the local elementary schools in our area during outages. They stopped doing it as a budget cutting exercise and as a risk management decision. They knew that their system was becoming so unreliable that it was inevitable that they would be forced to pay millions for dry ice for a million people without power for days.

When I was boy, Grandad used to buy dry ice for our "ice box" fridge in our place. The truck came by twice a week to deliver the dry ice at our doorstep. I think it cost less than 50 cents a week. That was back in the 50s.

I could spend paragraphs explaining to you how my wife and I suffered through this event, our meals, our troubles with no communications, burned-out batteries, no cell phones, no TV, no cable, no internet, tropically heated bedrooms, sealing the home against breakins, shaving in the dark, lack of cooked food, reading by candlelight, and other minor inconveniences. It's over now. I don't want to remember the pain.

Back to modern PEPCO. Our impassioned pleas to send out a crew to service our neighborhood went unheeded for days. It got hotter and hotter, the humidity climbing daily. We had modern underground cable everywhere in our subdivision, placed there 38 years ago. BG&Es CEO got on the radio and told the world that PEPCO's utility had every right to build out its network above ground and subject to falling trees and debris because "It's easier to find the faults and fix them." I'll give him that. It's certainly easier to see that a tree has fallen over a power line and taken out thousands of customers. Fifteen years ago, we once had a far more powerful 100 MPH storm fell over 530 trees just in our subdivision. Our power stayed on throughout. Our cables are buried. I even know where our feeder is located. I told a human being at PEPCO the night before they finally sent a crew that if they came, I would show them which one they needed to turn on. It needed to be reset. It couldn't take more than ten minutes, and 500 families would have power again.

It took them half an hour. They started at the wrong feeder. I pointed the guys to the right access point. They finally got our power on.

The upstairs of our house was over 90 F with about 65% humidity by then. Even the second load of dry ice had evaporated!

Modern PEPCO had split into two pieces a few years ago, doubling its expenses for management and G&A, and halving its responsibilities, doubling its costs, and vastly diminishing its services to customers and overall system reliability. PEPCO hasn't built a power plant in decades. It hasn't improved its cables since Nixon was in office. Maryland's Public Service Commission (PSC) which oversees the utility clearly approved all the changes despite the tremendous cost to consumers in terms of reliability, potential economic losses, and exposure to loss of life and property. The senior management of PEPCO's two new pieces are paid nearly 300 times as much as civil servants. It's no wonder that the "Ding Dong School graduates" of Maryland's private utility CEOs and PSC can make such grandiose statements about the reliability of the grid and their customer service.

PEPCO recently stated that their service is "reliable" after one politician on our County Council, Roger Berliner, called them out for their negligence about buried cable.

The DC area has the "third largest tree canopy in the country" among metropolitan areas. After seeing telephone poles snapped off at the base like toothpicks when doubly burdened by power cables and transformers, hanging over our main roads with tree branches draped over them, I'm inclined to agree with Mr. Berliner. How were these geniuses allowed to build out their system using telephone poles to hold up three times the rated weight of the poles in heavily wooded areas? Why were the trees not cut back along the road sides? Why were cables not buried with sensors to activate fault isolation data broadcasts during outages?

Please don't tell me they did not have the money. These utilities pay their risk management executives millions of dollars a year to make decisions.

Folks, I'm just a retired rocket scientist. What do I know about executives and their responsibilities?

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Designed first all-solar home for Ryland Homes in 1974. At MITRE, led a group of 35 of the best minds in the world (including Dr. Edward Teller, among others) who performed detailed engineering, scientific, socio-economic, and political analyses of (more...)
 
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It only seems right that if a company so many peop... by patricia win on Saturday, Jul 31, 2010 at 5:55:26 AM
Patricia,Now that I have had the cool, fresh air t... by Paul from Potomac on Saturday, Jul 31, 2010 at 6:17:01 AM
Don't try to forget it. Think often about the fact... by Mary Pitt on Saturday, Jul 31, 2010 at 1:09:56 PM
Mary,I shared the same misery as you describe. I c... by Paul from Potomac on Saturday, Jul 31, 2010 at 2:12:16 PM
The nightmare you and your wife went through is a ... by Debbie S on Saturday, Jul 31, 2010 at 2:35:50 PM
Debbie,Please pass this story on to everyone you k... by Paul from Potomac on Saturday, Jul 31, 2010 at 2:46:02 PM
You are passing this story on by posting it, I can... by Debbie S on Saturday, Jul 31, 2010 at 3:10:11 PM
Debbie,Lauren Ashburn wrote a story published toda... by Paul from Potomac on Sunday, Aug 1, 2010 at 6:50:52 AM
I read the story, but it wasn't a story to enjoy.I... by Debbie S on Sunday, Aug 1, 2010 at 1:43:07 PM
Debbie,It doesn't take a rocket scientist to under... by Paul from Potomac on Sunday, Aug 1, 2010 at 2:26:58 PM
One aspect of human nature is: The more we humans ... by Doc "Old Codger" McCoy on Saturday, Jul 31, 2010 at 9:39:17 PM
Even though you made a good point, many of the peo... by Debbie S on Sunday, Aug 1, 2010 at 1:12:59 AM
Doc,Well, I know a spoiled child when I see one, a... by Paul from Potomac on Sunday, Aug 1, 2010 at 6:42:40 AM