D.C., Pepco could spend billions to bury power lines

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Photo - The June 29 storm caused massive damage and knocked out 911 phone lines in Virginia.
The June 29 storm caused massive damage and knocked out 911 phone lines in Virginia.
Local,DC,Alan Blinder

Hoping to prevent another bout of widespread electricity outages, D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray moved Thursday to form a task force that will recommend whether the city should bury its power lines.

"I called for a game-changer after the repeated power outages caused by this summer's severe storms," Gray said. "The undergrounding task force will finally develop long-term solutions to these all-too-frequent disruptions."

Joseph Rigby, the president of Pepco Holdings Inc., will co-chair the 15-member task force with City Administrator Allen Lew. The panel will stage its first meeting on Aug. 23 as it begins its review of major weather-related outages in the District over the past decade.

Tell them how you feel
The task force that will study putting the District's power lines underground will hear from members of the public next week. To register to speak, call 202-478-9200 or email phyllis.love@dc.gov. The meeting is scheduled for 1 p.m. Thursday at the John A. Wilson Building.

Pepco, which serves about 256,000 District customers, faced blistering criticism after a powerful storm swept through the region on June 29.

The derecho, a forecasting term for a long-lasting wind storm over a large area, shut off some customers' electricity -- and air conditioning -- for days in the midst of a triple-digit heat wave.

Pepco defended its performance in the derecho's aftermath, and its leaders compared the fast-moving storm to Hurricane Isabel, which ravaged the area in 2003.

Pepco has long warned that burying the District's power lines would be expensive -- some estimates have pegged the cost at nearly $6 billion -- and said customers would end up bearing the costs.

Pepco has said that if the costs were spread out over a decade, the average customer would see their electric bill climb by more than $200 a month.

But the company said Thursday that it welcomed the task force, which will submit its report by Jan. 31, shortly after Pepco is due to file an analysis with Maryland utility officials about burying power lines in the state.

"We look forward to working with the group to identify the benefits, costs and different issues associated with undergrounding power lines," the company said in a statement. "Pepco will provide whatever support needed to develop meaningful recommendations."

The task force is poised to begin its work as the D.C. Public Service Commission weighs a request from Pepco to increase rates by about $5 per month. Last month, Maryland regulators largely rejected Pepco's push to hike their prices there.

ablinder@washingtonexaminer.com

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