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The Southern Maryland Electric Cooperative is working to upgrade its infrastructure to boost its reliability. Work is under way in Calvert County and will come to St. Mary’s by 2014, the St. Mary’s County commissioners were told Tuesday.

In a cold snap in January 2005, the southern half of Calvert County lost power as a 69-kilovolt line failed. Right now, the southern half of St. Mary’s is at similar risk, the commissioners were told.

The $110 million reliability project will replace that connection with two 230-kilovolt lines to provide a continuous loop of power within SMECO’s system.

When work comes to St. Mary’s, it will bring transmission towers twice as tall as those currently in place in California.

“It’s not popular. It’s not comfortable, but it’s got to be done,” said Austin J. Slater Jr., SMECO president and chief executive officer. With its permits in place, the electric cooperative is bringing the more powerful system from Huntingtown in Calvert County south toward St. Mary’s.

The project has been in SMECO’s plans since the 1970s, Slater said. “It’s overdue and we’ve got to get it done.”

The number of customers continues to increase as does the demand for electricity. There are now 155,000 meters in SMECO’s service area, providing power for almost 400,000 people in Southern Maryland, Slater said.

The upgraded reliability project follows existing rights of way, said Tom Dennison, public affairs director, so it doesn’t need new property. There will be 28 miles of overhead transmission lines and a two-mile underground cable dug beneath the deep Patuxent River.

The current transmission lines are 65 to 75 feet tall, spaced 400 feet apart. The new towers will be 140 to 160 feet tall, spaced 800 feet apart.

The new line is planned to run down a path along Shady Mile Drive, across the Park Place development (home to a series of restaurants), across Route 235 to the South Plaza shopping center (home to a Best Buy store) and then south down the county’s right of way to the SMECO substation at Buck Hewitt Road.

Slater said, “The cost would be prohibitive” to bury the lines and would also be environmentally prohibitive. Burying the lines could “easily be 14 times as much,” Slater said. SMECO has about 14,000 miles of lines, of which 65 percent are already buried.

The two-mile underground cable is to be drilled from Point Patience in Calvert County to North Patuxent Beach Road in St. Mary’s. The river’s channel is 110 feet deep there, and the cable will be at least 30 feet deeper than that, under the river bed. Work to place that cable starts in the winter of 2013, said Kenneth Capps, SMECO senior vice president.

Work for the new towers in St. Mary’s is scheduled in 2014. The entire project should be ready by early 2015, Dennison said.

Slater noted that SMECO moved faster than other utilities in the state after massive power outages from Hurricane Irene in August 2011 and a derecho storm this past June. The hurricane caused 108,000 SMECO outages. Power was fully restored after five days. The derecho caused 60,000 outages and power was restored in three days.

However, its success also comes with a price, he said.

SMECO’s System Average Interruption Duration Index is 2.37 in 2012, which means electricity is lost for about 2.4 hours a year on average. Baltimore Gas and Electric has an index of 4.24 in 2012.

The Maryland Public Service Commission has set new reliability standards for power providers based on their existing performance. SMECO is expected to have a disruption index of 2.32 by 2015. “You can see that we were basically punished for having good numbers,” Slater said. In 2015, Baltimore Gas and Electric is supposed to have an index of 3.44.

For SMECO, “improving the numbers is going to cost us about $7 million over the next four to five years,” Slater said.

“Another $7 million unfunded mandate,” said Commissioner Todd Morgan (R).

jbabcock@somdnews.com