Power to the people

March 10, 2011, 2:41 p.m. | By Maggie Shi | 11 years, 9 months ago

County needs to fix its system with overhaul

Pepco. It's remarkable how a single word, especially mentioned at a time of particularly tumultuous weather in Maryland, can spark fits of rage from citizens all across the county. Mention Pepco at a social gathering, and you will surely be bombarded with complaints and horror stories – power going out for no apparent reason, fallen trees that leave entire neighborhoods in the dark for days and dreadfully slow response times.

But despite the citizens' loud and rambunctious griping, Montgomery County hasn't been able to force Pepco into doing much. After years of consistently bad service, it is time the county stopped trying to negotiate with a stubborn Pepco and looked into a whole other alternative – the more reliable, more economical publicly-owned electric utility.

This "public power" is different from a utility company like Pepco in that it is publicly owned and community operated. According to the American Public Power Association (APPA), a trade organization that represents public electric utilities, there are 2,008 public power systems in the United States.

Public utilities are controlled not by a corporation but by the local government, either in the form of a city council or a utilities-specific board. The members of the council are voted into office by the citizens, so the customers have a much greater influence on utility-related policies. This customer influence is something that is currently missing in Montgomery County. Local officials can skewer Pepco executives all they want at meetings, but it does not really need to make an effort at change simply because it has a monopoly over electric utilities in the region. As County Councilmember Marc Ehrlich (D-at large) said to a Pepco executive in a Feb. 7 Transportation and Environment Committee meeting, "You had ways of measuring your performance for years. None of that motivated your to get off the bottom." The only real influence local officials have on Pepco is that they can order studies to be conducted, like that of the Pepco work group. But these studies will only tell us what we already know – that Pepco's service is dismal.

So instead of continuing the unproductive back-and-forth banter between local officials and Pepco, the county should make an effort to look into alternatives. And it has – the idea of the county possibly switching to community owned power systems was mentioned for the first time in the same Feb. 7 committee meeting in which local officials criticized Pepco.

The premise of public power is a viable contender in the fight over electric utilities in the county because it lets the customer decide on programs and policies. According to Ursula Schryver, director of Customer Programs at the APPA, community-owned utilities can be tailored to the customers' needs. "For example, it can focus on infrastructure, lowering rates or customer service," she said. Local officials who are focused on community goals will be in charge of utilities, rather than corporate executives who don't necessarily put the community first when making decisions.

This community-focused decision making process means that customers willing to make an effort for more reliability can have an actual impact on the utility. According to Schryver, not only can citizens vote members onto the board, but they can also sit in on council meetings.

In addition to maintaining a more community-centered focus, public power may also cost less for customers. According to a 2008 Energy Information Administration study, customers of investor-owned utilities, like Pepco, paid on average 15 percent more for electricity than customers with publicly-owned utilities. This is because publicly-owned utilities are not-for-profit, meaning no money has to go to corporate executives or investors.

Granted, public power isn't perfect. Switching from investor-owned utilities to public power is a long and arduous process. According to Schryver, Montgomery County would have to conduct feasibility studies, allot money to pay for all the costs associated, conduct a legal analysis to see if any state or local laws prohibit public power and also negotiate with Pepco. Depending on whether Pepco is willing to work with citizens, this process can take from six to 10 years, which means there will still be quite a few cold, powerless winters ahead.

But despite the time and effort required to switch, public power is still a promising alternative to Pepco. Even if public power remains just an idea, it will give the local government actual leverage against Pepco's monopoly. And maybe it would even help Pepco – perhaps public power could take on the role of the community scapegoat for a while.

Maggie Shi. More »

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