I spent most of the first 36 hours of the Great Washington D.C. Power Outage of 2012 at a wedding in New Jersey. And I spent some of that time — probably too much, considering most of the people there aren’t affected by Pepco at all — complaining about just how bad my local utility company is.
Calling our latest power outage in the suburbs of D.C. “Great” is probably a bit of a misnomer. It conveys rarity when extended outages in the region have become routine. It’s not like the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 was followed up by another blaze six months later, after all. No, for the last five years — at least once a year, it seems — bad weather (some of it, yes, historic) rolls in and the lights go out … for a good long while.
It was a derecho this time around that KO’d big swaths of the region’s power grid, but in the recent past it has been Snowmageddons and all other manner of violent storms.
Every time the lights flicker and sputter and go dark now, I get almost unconscionably mad because I know it will be far too long before they come back on. In the wake of the derecho, I was out for almost four days. I’m also self-aware enough to know that my anger and annoyance might come off as childish and spoiled. If not being able to charge your iPhone isn’t a first-world problem, I don’t know what is, and, really, it’s understandable that the power grid has been damaged by such unusual weather patterns in recent years.
But then I read articles like this one and feel, well, a little less like a jackass upset about losing the ability of fire up Netflix for a few days.
Four days after an unusually strong “derecho” thunderstorm struck the nation’s capital area, Dominion Power, the utility for the Northern Virginia suburbs around Washington, D.C., had restored 67 percent of its outages. BG&E, the utility for Baltimore, had restored 61 percent. Together these two high-performing utilities had restored power to about 750,000 customers by the fourth day. The woeful Pepco, which serves Montgomery County and parts of D.C., had restored just 43 percent of its outages, bringing a mere 200,000 back online. Some 239,000 Pepco customers remained without power, and the utility was saying it would be until Friday night before power was back, and then only to 90 percent of outages. This is happening as a heat wave pushes daily temperatures close to 100 degrees.
How does Pepco get away with this? Maryland’s Public Service Commission is a notorious lapdog, in part because although Maryland local government traditionally is clean, the Maryland statehouse traditionally is corrupt. Think Spiro Agnew, who in 1973 resigned as Richard Nixon’s vice president owing to charges of bribery from his term as Maryland governor, becoming the sole U.S. vice president to resign because of corruption. As the good-government website OurDC notes,”From 2008 to 2010, Pepco CEO Joe Rigby earned $8.8 million and Pepco top officers earned more than $22 million. During that same period, Pepco reported $882 million in profits, paid no federal and state income taxes and received $817 million in tax refunds.” Yet as the money rolled in, the Maryland Public Service Commission allowed Pepco to cut back on maintenance, in order to divert funds to dividends and management bonuses.
In 2011, there were Maryland statehouse hearings resulting in what was spun as a crackdown on Pepco. The “crackdown” was ridiculously modest — a rule that Pepco must improve reliability by three percent per year. But the rule doesn’t take effect until 2013, and the fine for a violation is $10,000, chickenfeed to a company with a $260 million net income in 2011.
Pepco faces a simple reliability equation: The more it spends on improving service, the less is available for dividends and executive bonuses. CEO Rigby is a major shareholder, so in effect awards himself a commission when he keeps infrastructure spending low and dividends high. After the mega-thunderstorm, Dominion Power took 14 hours to restore all its transformers and main feeder lines — this is the first step in any utility’s storm recovery — while Pepco took 36 hours. That’s because Pepco transformers were in poor repair when the storm hit, despite an advertising campaign promising improvements. Within 48 hours of the storm, Dominion had 2,000 out-of-state workers present to assist in restoration; Pepco had just 300. If Pepco drags its feet on recovery, the utility avoids paying doubletime or tripletime, plus expenses, to out-of-state crews. And Pepco knows it can drag its feet without any risk of action by Maryland regulators.
Or for something slightly more visceral, how about Gawker’s Drew Magary:
And to give you an idea of just how awful PEPCO is, today they announced that they would be charging customers like me a “bill stabilization adjustment,” which essentially charges customers like me for the sin of not having working electricity. And the best part of this is that this insane overcharge is part of Maryland LAW. In order to protect Pepco, Maryland created a law that allowed them to add this charge so that, in the event of an outage, their revenue doesn’t drop. Because GOD FUCKING FORBID a shitty American megalith like Pepco go one week without sticking its electrified cock into your wallet.
This area of the country is now notorious for its frequent power outages. It’s gotten to the point where I don’t even blink when the power goes out. I just head right to the freezer and begin eating all the Dove bars before they melt (don’t judge me). I’d think about buying a generator, but effective ones run thousands of dollars. And why should I have to buy a generator when there are places like Boston and Chicago that have much, much shittier weather and far less frequent (and long lasting) outages? I shouldn’t. I should be able to buy power from a company that isn’t corrupt and evil and run by Satanic molebeasts.
Maybe it’s obvious to you, but it strikes me that the real issue here isn’t that the service goes down, but rather that it takes so long to get back up and running. And, further, that the only reason this is acceptable is because Pepco has spent so much of the profits that it could be devoting to infrastructure upgrades on lobbying state and federal government officials, who will in turn talk tough when the lights go out, but who in reality are shooting political fish in a barrel. What is Gov. Martin O’Malley going to do, after all? Get rid of Pepco? Nope. It’s a win-win for him.
So, yes, there is this pent-up irrational rage at being hot (or cold) and bothered and feeling like some sort of bizarro refugee roving the state of Maryland looking for a good outlet to charge my electronic devices. But bubbling below the surface there is also genuine and legitimate anger.
Isn’t Pepco, with its crumbling infrastructure, exorbitant tax breaks and greasing of palms across the state of Maryland, about the worst a political system so thoroughly bought and paid for by mega-corporations can wrought? Yep. It checks about every single box there is, and that’s why people outside of the region should care. With the right set of circumstances and some calamitous weather, they could easily be next.