POLITICS
07/02/2012 05:31 pm ET | Updated Jul 02, 2012

Power Outages Around Washington Preceded By Power Plays

WASHINGTON -- In the wake of Friday night's freak storm, people in the nation's capital aren't talking about power as a metaphor. They're talking about the real thing: who has it and who doesn't. And why it's taking so long to return.

Hundreds of thousands of sweltering residents in the Washington area are still out of electricity more than two days after high winds slammed the region, and some may not get it back until the end of the week or even later.

Blame the weather, but that other power in Washington -- the political variety -- also has a lot to do with why so many people can't run their air conditioners this week.

Major electric utilities have spent hundreds of millions of dollars in the last two decades on campaign contributions and lobbying as part of a hugely successful push to free their industry from federal and state regulations and ostensibly embrace competition. Rather than a reduction in prices, the result has been that utilities' community obligations have been superseded by the need to drive up short-term profits, while enriching top executives and big shareholders has been prioritized over reinvesting profits in improved facilities.

Local utilities involved in the distribution of electricity -- including Pepco and Old Dominion Power, which serve Washington, D.C., and parts of Maryland and Virginia -- are still regulated by local public utility commissions. Like the bigger power companies, however, changes in the market competition and relaxed oversight have led them to focus more on the bottom line.

Utilities that distribute electricity have slashed jobs and thereby possibly slowed response time after storms, argued Tyson Slocum, director of the energy program for the consumer watchdog group Public Citizen. According to Slocum, with less oversight from regulators, there's also less pressure to replace equipment before, rather than after, it blows.

Slocum said the local utility regulators need to step up.

"I think what the regulatory commissions need to do is open up a full public hearing," he said. "Not just for a bunch of utility lawyers, but a public hearing for policymakers, for journalists and for the general public to have a full examination of whether the slow recovery times from the storms could be prevented in the future."

One major topic for discussion should be whether it is cost-effective to spend the money to bury power lines underground, he said, and therefore avoid costly disasters later when wind-blown trees or ice bring down lines above ground.

In July 2010 after a similar storm, Mike Sullivan, a Pepco executive, told the Washington Post that burying power lines "is a very expensive and disruptive undertaking. Current estimates range from $5,000,000 to $8,000,000 per mile to underground. Additionally, undergrounding often kills trees because of root disruption."

Yet most other industrialized countries have a higher percentage of their power lines underground than the U.S. does.

"The question is: Over the long-term life, do you save money? And generally yes, you would," Slocum argued.

Stephen Hammer, a professor of energy planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said that a reliable assessment is still needed of whether burying power lines would be cost-effective in the long term -- particularly with global warming. "The severity of events is becoming more than what we have design standards for," he said. "Are we going to begin to redesign the system?"

Stepped-up oversight may not be in the cards, however.

Douglas Nazarian, chairman of the Maryland Public Service Commission, told reporters Monday afternoon that it's too early to grade the performance of the utilities, despite the long timelines for restoration.

"I'm not happy that there are hundreds of thousands of people across the state without power," Nazarian said. But, he noted, "You can't say ever, going into this, a specific amount of time is acceptable or not acceptable."

He declined the opportunity to express outrage. "We ... have to focus on the event we've got, and learn what we can from it later, and get the systems as prepared and ready for the next one," Nazarian said.

Since 2000, the electric utility industry has made $127 million in political contributions at the federal level (not including possible secret ones) and even more, $222 million, at the state level. The contributions favor Republicans over Democrats by a 60-40 ratio.

The industry spends vastly more than that on lobbying. In 2010 alone, it poured $191 million into lobbying in Washington and employed more than 900 separate lobbyists. That kind of money makes electric utilities the third highest-spending industry on federal lobbying, behind only the pharmaceutical and insurance sectors, according to OpenSecrets.org.

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