Pepco improves, but still ranks poorly in customer opinions

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Local,Maryland,Rachel Baye

Pepco ranked among the least favorite energy utilities in this year's American Customer Satisfaction Index, though the company declared the "most hated" last year improved drastically in customers' opinions.

Pepco Holdings Inc. -- the parent company of the Potomac Electric Power Co., which serves thousands of residents in Montgomery and Prince George's counties and the District -- scored a 69 on a zero-to-100 scale in the ACSI ranking of the 25 largest investor-owned electric utilities, released Tuesday. The ranking was a 28 percent improvement over last year's score of 54, but leaves the energy company tied with California-based PG&E for second to last.

At its new score of 69, Pepco is tied with Comcast among all companies, and has a better approval rating than the average airline but a much worse rating than the U.S. Postal Service and banks.

The only energy company that performed worse was New England's Northeast Utilities, which scored a 59. The region endured a year of extreme weather, from tornadoes to hurricanes to blizzards, that ACSI says factored in its 21 percent plummet.

Likewise, Pepco's drop last year from 70 in 2010 to 54 in 2011 -- one of the biggest drops in ACSI records for any company in the index -- and Pepco's recent improvement were both weather-related. Storms caused major outages for Pepco customers in 2010, while 2011 was mild.

Customers don't pay attention to their electric company until the service goes sour, said David VanAmburg, managing director of ACSI. Once bad weather does strike, customers judge their utility based on how well it responds.

Last year's mild weather means Pepco hasn't had a chance to prove that it made sufficient improvements, said Montgomery County Council President Roger Berliner, an energy attorney who has led the county's fight to keep its residents' lights on.

Even with the improved ranking, Pepco is well below the average-- 76 this year --and even further below the top-ranked Sempra Energy, a California company that scored an 83. Virginia's Dominion Resources ranked sixth, with an 80.

"This demonstrates the deep hole that they are in terms of public confidence and how much work they need to do to get out of it," said Berliner, D-Bethesda.

Though the lights remained on for most of last year, many Montgomery County residents are unhappy with Pepco's tree-trimming practices, which are an effort to keep branches away from power lines.

"They've embarked upon a deforestation campaign," said Chevy Chase resident Carl Thomsen.

Berliner and Councilman Marc Elrich, D-at large, on Tuesday introduced legislation to make sure Pepco trims only trees that pose a risk to power lines.

But Pepco officials say they don't believe Montgomery County has the authority to restrict the way it cuts trees. That should be left to the Maryland Public Service Commission, the state's utility regulator, the company argues.

rbaye@washingtonexaminer.com

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Rachel Baye

Staff Writer - Education
The Washington Examiner