Major Utility Infrastructure Rebuild, Replacement, and Construction programs
The District’s Plans to Become Climate Resilient
Climate change has brought big changes to the weather in the District and these changes are projected to get worse. With hotter summers, increased flooding and more severe storms from climate change District communities will need to be able to “weather” these disruptions. The project of helping communities survive and thrive weather changes is called climate resilience, or climate change adaptation. The District has a series of plans that describe what the District intends to do to become climate resilient:
- Climate Ready DC (2016) – The District’s first climate resilience plan, Climate Ready DC, was issued in 2016. To develop the plan the District government convened a team of technical experts to assess the likely impacts of climate change on District businesses and residents. The plan proposed 77 actions for the District to become climate ready.
- Resilient DC (2019) – Resilient DC expanded the focus of resiliency projects. This plan defines “urban resilience” as “the capacity of individuals, communities, institutions, businesses, and systems within a city to survive, adapt, and thrive no matter what kinds of chronic stresses and acute shocks they experience.” The plan presents a broad strategy for developing greater resilience in the District.
- Strategic Roadmap for Climate Ready DC (2020) – Given the ever-increasing urgency of climate change, the 2020 Strategic Roadmap for Climate Ready DC went through a community-informed prioritization exercise to hone in on the 35 most high priority actions from the 2016 Climate Ready DC. The Plan gives update on actions, next steps, and implementation strategies for those high-priority actions.
OPC, as the advocate for gas, electric, and water consumers, is helping to educate District residents about available home or community-based resilience programs. When these programs are funded by ratepayers OPC is advocating for the programs to be cost-effective, just, affordable, and equitable.
OPC Continues to Monitor Use of Advanced Leak Detection Technology in Addressing Gas Leaks
Natural gas leaks along Washington Gas’s aging distribution system remain a critical issue for the District of Columbia. Gas leaks present serious threats to safety and affect the reliability of natural gas service. Because methane emissions contribute to climate change, gas leakage from pipes also impedes the District of Columbia’s ability to achieve its climate goals. The Public Service Commission (Commission) and various stakeholders are considering advanced leak detection (ALD) technology to better address this problem. ALD technology refers to new tools that can be employed to detect gas leaks. The hope is that such technology can facilitate more effective and efficient leak detection, which could help repair Washington Gas’s distribution system.
Accordingly, on December 11, 2020, the Commission ordered the creation of the Advanced Leak Detection Pilot Program (ALD Pilot) and directed Washington Gas to administer the program over three years, authorizing a budget of $1.4 million. Through the ALD Pilot, Washington Gas is to utilize ALD technology to identify gas leaks within its distribution system. Based on the results of the ALD Pilot, the Commission has indicated that ALD technology could applied on a larger scale and become a long-term tool. The results of the program will undoubtedly influence the cost of natural gas service moving forward for ratepayers.
The Office of the People’s Counsel (OPC) has concerns as to Washington Gas’s implementation of the ALD Pilot. Washington Gas abruptly switched the kind of ALD technology it originally proposed using. Initially, WGL proposed using mobile ALD technology where the system is vehicle mounted; however, Washington Gas later contracted for services with Satelytics Inc., a company that uses satellite imaging to locate gas leaks. OPC has concerns about the effectiveness of this technology in an urban setting where pipes are located underground beneath concrete and other infrastructure. There is no clear indication why WGL chose to make this switch. In contrast, vehicle mounted ALD technology is used successfully in many urban settings.
In response to concerns raised by OPC and other stakeholders, the Public Service Commission held a technical conference to further examine the ALD Pilot on April 14, 2022, with OPC in attendance. Questions about the efficacy of the program remain, and a second conference is already tentatively scheduled in May.
OPC remains committed to ensuring that appropriate technologies are considered and reasonable metrics are used in measuring the program’s success. Choosing unproven and ineffective methods would defeat the purpose of employing ALD technology and drive-up costs, creating an unfair burden on ratepayers.
In early 2021, the Office of People’s Counsel (“OPC”) received several complaints from Takoma Park residents along Eastern Avenue, NW, who reported suspected damage to their homes as a result of Pepco construction in the area. At least eighteen (18) homeowners have filed complaints against Pepco for damage they believe is being caused by utility construction work.
Consumers expressed concerns about noise, vibrations and foundation damage to homes, as construction contractors work. Many residents had already attempted to resolve the issues directly with Pepco, while others had turned to local news media for help.
Upon learning of the claims, OPC hired a local engineering firm to independently investigate the reports of damage. On October 14, 2021, based upon the findings of the engineering investigation, OPC filed a Petition for Formal Investigation into the prudence of the Pepco’s construction practices with the Public Service Commission (“PSC”). The goal of OPC’s petition is to determine if Pepco is using proper construction practices, to determine if costs should be returned to ratepayers and to make sure there are protocols in place to avoid future damage to homes.
In response to the Petition, Pepco revealed that the construction at issue was a part of the Capital Grid Project and requested the PSC to deny OPC’s Petition. Subsequently, on November 18, 2021, PSC Staff requested data request from Pepco regarding vibration monitoring measures and the damage claims.
On April 7, 2022, after reviewing Pepco’s responses, the PSC declined to initiate an investigation into Pepco’s construction practices. The Commission’s basis for denying OPC’s petition is that 1) the issue of construction practices is primarily under the authority of the District’s Department of Transportation and 2) the Commission’s review of Pepco’s responses showed that Pepco is hiring qualified third-party firms that use industry standard vibration and survey services. The Commission added that a determination of whether costs were imprudently incurred could not be determined until those costs were examined in a rate case.
OPC is monitoring the number of complaints and claims filed with Pepco on a monthly basis and will make the prudency of the company’s construction cost an issue in the rate case Pepco will file in January 2023. Additionally, OPC will keep the public informed of upcoming opportunities for community members to speak out about issues with Pepco’s construction practices.