After the region got derechoed this summer and nearly half a million Pepco customers found themselves without power, District leaders went into CYA mode.

Mayor Vince Gray called for a “game-changer” and assembled a 15-member task force to figure out how to move the city’s power lines underground. Councilmembers Mary Cheh and Jack Evans introduced separate proposals to compel Pepco to pull out its shovels and start digging.

Lest D.C. residents forget the frailty of their electric infrastructure, another powerful storm tore through the region last week, knocking out power for about 14,000 Pepco customers. The worst of the summer storm season ought to be behind us now, but fall has fallen, and the blizzards of three winters past loom large in the city’s collective memory.

It was against that backdrop that the Mayor’s Task Force on Power Line Undergrounding convened Wednesday to discuss the next steps toward preventing widespread outages and to hear from the public.

And hear from the public they did. Nearly 200 protesters, mostly with the community group Our DC, packed the hearing room and the hall outside, chanting “zero for Pepco!” Outside the Wilson Building, they inflated a giant pig, emblazoned with the words “Pepco is greedy.” And they handed out flyers urging people to “tell Pepco and City Hall, ‘We will not pay for underground lines.’”

On the surface, moving power lines underground seems like the obvious solution to the outages. The areas of the District hit hardest by the summer’s storms were those where power lines are above ground, particularly in Wards 3, 7, and 8. (Maryland, where more power lines are suspended, fared even worse.) So bury the wires, and problem solved, right?

Power Lines, Pepco

That’s Evans’ take. The Ward 2 councilmember is all for burying 100 percent of the above-ground power lines, cost be damned. “We built the Metro system,” Evans says. “It ended up being a $12 or 15 billion project. We built a huge amount of different public works. There are ways of doing this.”

True, technically. But a 2010 report commissioned by the city found that burying all the District’s power lines would cost $5.8 billion. Pepco estimates that if the cost were spread over 10 years, residents’ electricity bills would jump by $200 a month.

Evans thinks that figure is “way too high” for ratepayers to bear, but insists that the investment will prove worthwhile in the long term. “I can tell you a million reasons why we couldn’t afford the baseball stadium,” he says. “Think it’s a bad idea today? Of course not. The convention center? ‘Terrible idea.’ You do these things and find a way to make them happen and they work.”

(It doesn’t hurt that burying the city’s power lines would almost certainly mean big bucks for D.C.’s dominant road construction company, Fort Myer Construction, whose executives have been known to donate generously to D.C. pols.)

But let’s do a cost comparison: $5.8 billion is more than the city’s entire construction budget for the next six years ($5 billion). It’s more than twice as much as the massive Clean Rivers project to tidy up the city’s waterways—$2.6 billion, which itself is expected to drive consumers’ utility bills wildly higher.

The Mayor’s Task Force on Power Line Undergrounding won’t deliver its final recommendations until January, and it’s likely it won’t include the full undergrounding of the city’s remaining overhead lines.

“I don’t think anyone anticipates that that would be a recommendation across the system,” Pepco Senior Vice President Bill Gausman said at the hearing.

The 2010 report, by Shaw Consultants International, found that “the bulk of the benefits derived from this option are from improvements in aesthetics rather than reliability.” Instead, Shaw proposed two alternatives.

A quick a primer on how the system works: After being generated, electricity is transmitted along high-voltage lines to substations, where it’s transformed into a lower voltage and sent along primary mainlines. It then splits off to primary lateral lines, and finally, with its voltage further reduced, to secondary and service lines, which reach people’s homes and businesses.

Shaw suggested a $1.1 billion plan to bury just the primary mainlines, or a $2.3 billion option to bury the primary mainlines and lateral lines. Both of these measures would eliminate most storm-related outages from overhead lines while avoiding much of the construction and cost of the total-undergrounding option, which would also bury secondary and service lines.

“The $1.1 billion plan is not a minimal solution,” says Betty Ann Kane, chairman of the D.C. Public Service Commission and a member of the task force. “That would reduce by about 75 percent the number of outages in the city. That’s not minimal. That’s how you get, shall we say, the most bang for the buck.”

But $1.1 billion still isn’t petty cash. That’s $2.6 million per outage avoided (versus $5.6 million in a full undergrounding)—and there still could be outages from malfunctions in the underground lines, which tend to take longer to fix than their overhead counterparts.

Kane says Gray told the task force that handing ratepayers a $1 billion tab wouldn’t be acceptable. So where would the money come from?

“We don’t know how that cost is going to be divided,” says Ward 7 councilmember Yvette Alexander, who sits on the task force and chairs the council’s Committee on Public Services and Consumer Affairs. “Surely the consumers will bear a cost, possibly the city will bear a cost, and the utility will bear a cost.”

But whether the money comes from D.C. ratepayers, D.C. taxpayers, or Pepco, which could then pass along the costs to ratepayers, isn’t it all the same money? Alexander laughs. “You could look at it that way,” she says.

Gausman does. “Obviously the cost will ultimately go back to the consumers,” he said at Wednesday’s hearing.

But which consumers? Some have assumed that it’ll be the people who benefit, those living in areas where undergrounding will occur. But there are two problems here. First, the areas hit hard by the outages lie on opposite ends of the socioeconomic spectrum: well-heeled Ward 3 and the poorer neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River. And second, it’s hard to argue that the people who pay should be the ones who are suffering from subpar service.

“You have people in the same city, people paying the same amount, who get very disparate service,” says task-force member Matthew Frumin, who chairs Advisory Neighborhood Commission 3E in Tenleytown and Friendship Heights. “Something like two-thirds of the people in the city are served by underground lines, and they pay the same as the people who live in places where lines are overground and they have all these reliability issues.” Frumin insists that the bill for any rate increases be footed “systemwide, citywide,” so as not to punish people doubly for the outages they’ve incurred.

Which, by the way, Pepco has a history of doing. After the derecho, Pepco attempted to slap a surcharge onto Maryland ratepayers’ bills to compensate for the company’s losses during the storm. Maryland regulators sensibly rejected most of Pepco’s desired rate hike, but still allowed the company to charge customers a token $2 extra a month, on average, for the sin of losing power. (A Pepco spokesperson did not respond to repeated requests for comment for this article.)

D.C.’s Public Service Commission should also take a good, hard look at Pepco’s record before allowing it to hike rates on residents who have suffered from some of the country’s worst service. A 2010 report by the Washington Post found that Pepco had 70 percent more outages than other big-city utilities, and that they lasted more than twice as long. Pepco claimed that the capital region had the fourth-densest tree cover in the country, which caused interference with overhead lines—but the Post found that the region had average tree cover, and that in areas with denser foliage, electric reliability was higher than in the D.C. area.

What’s more, the Post discovered, Pepco’s internal records showed that as of 2009, equipment failure caused 44 percent of outages, to just 24 percent from trees. That ought to raise some red flags for D.C.’s regulators. Before they allow Pepco to charge residents a whopping sum to bury power lines, they should consider whether the fault really lies with the city’s trees, or with its electric utility.

Photos by Darrow Montgomery