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BGE Walks, Talks With Residents About Outage Problems

Arundel on the Bay residents met with BGE representatives to try and find solutions to what they see as frequent power outage problems.

Representatives from Baltimore Gas and Electric (BGE) spent a few hours on Tuesday morning working to repair its relationship with residents from Arundel on the Bay.

"There is a part of me that's really incredulous," resident Tim Hamilton said. "I've never lived in a place where people buy generators like they live in a third world country."

Arundel on the Bay customers have experienced sustained outages—meaning longer than five minutes—29 times since 2006 while neighboring communities like Hillsmere Shores have lost power just 5 times, according to statistics compiled by BGE.

During June's derecho storm many community members commiserated about being out of power for up to six days. These extended outages pose additional complications for Arundel on the Bay residents because most use well water. When the power goes out, so does the shower.

"When Isabel hit, I was out in the bay with a bucket," resident David Delia said. 

In Dec. 2011, the two sides and Sen. John Astle (D-Annapolis) met to devise a plan that included tree trimming, line improvements and the possibility of setting up a backup route for bringing in power to the community. BGE officials returned Tuesday with an update.

Tree Trimming

Three BGE representatives walked around the neighborhood with about 10 residents, pointing out which lines are theirs and how they determine what trees fit within the company's trimming budget. The walk proved eye opening for residents who often confused BGE lines with those belonging to Comcast and Verizon.

"You think you know how power is supplied to your neighborhood," Hamilton said. "But then they come in with the maps and show you and you realize you really had no idea."

He also found it helpful to hear why some trees—which he thought needed trimming—are left alone by BGE.

Power companies also face legal constraints because homeowners can refuse to grant power companies permission to trim their trees, said Bonnie Johansen, a local affairs manager for BGE.

Sen. John Astle (D-Annapolis) agreed, saying a majority of the tree trimming legislation that makes it to the Statehouse floor places further restrictions on power companies.

"When your tree impinges on my flushing a toilet, I have something to say about it," Delia said. 

He and other residents offered to apply peer pressure to community members who refused tree trimming, but officials said releasing those addresses would pose too much of a legal liability for the company.

Burying Power Lines

Residents steered the conversation towards burying some of the power lines since tree trimming isn't always possible or effective. 

"To do a substantial change in the grid, we are really going to need something from the entire rate base," BGE spokesman Mike Garzon said.

He said whether a large scale burial happens will ultimately depend on what—if any changes—come out of Gov. Martin O'Malley's executive order for a study on how to improve utility service. 

Burying lines is estimated to cost $1 million per mile, and Garzon said Maryland's laws require BGE to front the money and then go ask the Public Services Commission for a rate increase to cover costs.

Sen. Astle worked on a bill last year that would allow power companies to raise the money first.

"I got crushed on the Senate floor," Astle said. "I'm not sure the legislature is going to look kindly on a surcharge upfront, especially given what happened last year."

Resident Heath Nielsen said he couldn't wrap his head around why BGE hasn't saved up money for repairs and upgrades over the years. He starts saving money for a new car the moment he's paid off his current one.

"They should have money in place for upgrades," Nielson said. "I don't want to be charged for their lack of planning."

Alternative Sub-Stations

A major point of contention for Arundel on the Bay residents is that BGE serves the community through one sub-station off Bay Ridge Road. In 2011, community members asked the company to connect them to an alternate or back-up feeder.

Garzon said that should hopefully happen by fall 2013.

The company will spend about $450,000 this February improving the lines that go in and out of the Bay Ridge sub-station. Then, in the spring, the plan is to link the community to a nearby sub-station so the lights will stay on even when the Bay Ridge sub-station fails.

An official timeline hasn't been set to create the alternate path and studies will have to be done first on whether the nearby station needs any upgrades to handle the potential extra load, Garzon said.

Delia wants a timeline in writing and asked Garzon to send him or Sen. Astle a letter within two weeks.

"You're asking us right now to trust you," Delia said. "I'm sorry, we don't.”

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