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Takoma Park man stumps for public power

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Published on: Thursday, May 02, 2013

By Holden Wilen

Eric Hensal is sick of power outages and poor service from Pepco, and he is trying to do something about it.

Hensal, 45, a resident of Takoma Park, started a campaign to create a public electric utility for Montgomery County after he got frustrated with the reliability of the power he receives from Pepco. Hensal is originally from Ohio and moved to Montgomery County in 2000, and he works in public relations.

Pepco, a private corporation, owns and runs the electricity system in the county. Hensal said Pepco is one of the least reliable utilities in the country because of its aging infrastructure and reluctance to improve the system.

“They are unreliable on blue sky days,” Hensal said. “We are going to require a tremendous investment in infrastructure over the years to repair that and get us to an acceptable standard. Really Pepco is, for the lack of a better term, the slumlord of electricity. They have got a system where they try to squeeze as much money as they can out of it without fixing the boiler.”

If a public utility was created, then the people would own the power instead of a private corporation, thus creating accountability, Hensal said. In the U.S., he said 17 percent of electricity is delivered through public power systems. Easton is an example of a place in Maryland where the public owns the utility.

“Ultimately what you want to do with a public power system is get to the point where you can vote somebody out of office if they screw up,” Hensal said. “Pepco is responsible to the shareholders. That is how capitalism works and that is no problem. The problem is we are not the shareholders and they are maximizing the value for shareholders. That is not necessarily in our interest. When you have a public power system, their only job is to make sure the electricity is working and running.”

Councilman Marc Elrich said he too thinks a publicly-owned power utility is a great idea because of the accountability it would create since the people of the county would become the shareholders.

“If we can switch the dynamic so that we control some of this, we would be far, far, far better off,” Elrich said. “I think having a citizen board and all of those things that come with public power, if you are not happy, you can change the board. If you feel you do not get adequate service and do not think that they are placing the right priorities and making the right investments, all of those things become public decisions now.”

Hensal started the campaign in 2011. He runs a website and a Facebook group, and he said he also tries to spread the word by speaking at homeowners’ association meetings. Hensal also said he has talked with county council members such as Elrich and there appears to be some interest.

Though Hensal would like to see public power become a reality, he said the process for it actually happening is complicated and still a long way off.

The first step in the process, Hensal said, is the county council would conduct a feasibility study. If the study shows the creation of a public power utility is workable, then the county charter would likely have to be amended, which would have to occur through referendum. Once the charter is amended, a legal process of purchasing the system from Pepco would begin.

Despite the complicated process, Hensal said there would not be a large cost because a purchase from Pepco would likely be paid for through bonds. While Pepco would try to lobby, the company would not have much leverage.

“The kind of advertising that is typically used to scare people out of voting for something like this is a claim that government will be less reliable and if you have government than the electricity will always be going out,” Hensal said. “Pepco cannot say that. It already goes out. It is hard for them.”

Elrich said if the county did actually go through with creating a public utility, the cost of buying the system from Pepco would most likely not be very high, even if Pepco tried to demand a high price.

“They have got an assessed value of their property,” Elrich said. “Since they have run down their investment so badly, a lot of what they have got is not worth very much.

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