After the storms

Why did PG&E take longer to restore electricity than other power companies in the region?

END OF THE LINE<br>An AT&amp;T repair crew prepares to deal with downed phone lines in upper Cohasset after the New Year’s storm. PG&amp;E closed the single access road to repair power lines, leaving the community effectively cut off for 12 hours and leading residents to wonder what they would have done in case of an emergency.

END OF THE LINE
An AT&T repair crew prepares to deal with downed phone lines in upper Cohasset after the New Year’s storm. PG&E closed the single access road to repair power lines, leaving the community effectively cut off for 12 hours and leading residents to wonder what they would have done in case of an emergency.

Photo By LISA VEGVARY

The big blackout:
According to the California Public Utilities Commission, half of PG&E’s customers—or nearly 2.5 million people—experienced outages during the New Year’s storms, the largest number since almost 2 million were knocked out in 1995.

While Chico city councilmembers are patting Pacific Gas and Electric on the back for a job well done after the New Year’s storm battered the North State, some Butte County supervisors and department heads are casting stones at the utility for lack of preparation and follow-through.

Everyone who went through the storm is prone to come down on one side or the other in this debate, depending on personal experience. There’s no doubt that PG&E repair crews worked themselves to exhaustion trying to restore power, but there’s also no doubt that in many cases it took an exceedingly long time—and notably longer than the efforts by other power companies in the region.

When the storms first hit on Jan. 4, PG&E repair crews fanned out throughout Northern California, working 18- to 36-hour staggered shifts, pulling trees off power lines and replacing downed poles. In-house crews were supplemented by contract workers from as far away as Utah—about 100 crews, with up to five electrical workers each.

Par Electric, out of Vacaville, was one of those companies. Some 40 of its crews and 150 to 180 workers were spread out from Monterey to Chico, working 36-hour-straight shifts beginning that first Friday night.

Par Electric is part of Quanta Services, a large publicly traded company, so Project Manager Keith Unverferth was able to draw from as far away as Missouri and Montana.

PG&E asked Par crews for a second shift of 36 hours after an eight-hour rest, but most employees opted instead for 16 hours on and eight off, Unverferth said—more than that was simply not safe.

According to the state Public Utilities Commission, more than 800 miles of PG&E’s wires were damaged, with more than 1,000 transformers affected. Included in the survey of damage were 800 downed poles and 1,100 broken cross-arms.

In contrast, not one power pole or cross-arm failed in the region served by the Trinity Public Utility District, according to TPUD supervisor Jim Smith.

Trinity PUD is a special district with 500 miles of power lines in a mountain area about the size of Connecticut. It’s governed by an elected board of directors. Five years ago, the board decided to embark on a $10 million upgrade that replaced poles and cross-arms, improved substations and system redundancy and launched an aggressive tree-trimming program.

“It’s paid off,” Smith noted matter-of-factly.

During the storm, the power did go off to Douglas City and Hayfork, but that was because the PG&E transmission lines they depend on failed. “[When] PG&E goes down … that takes out larger groups of people,” Smith explained. And it takes longer than usual to restore power, since Smith and his crews can make repairs only on their own system.

Trinity PUD customers rarely lose power as a result of system failure, and when they do, the utility gets them back on line fast. In the last storm, most of the 800 homes that went dark because of Trinity’s system outage were lit again within eight hours.

And Trinity PUD does all this and still charges the lowest per-kilowatt-hour rate in the state.

“The biggest difference [between Trinity PUD and PG&E],” said Smith, who worked for PG&E for 18 years before coming to Trinity, “is that they are an IOU—an investor-owned utility. They have to charge enough to guarantee a profit. That drives their decisions. For us, whatever it costs us [to maintain the system], that’s what we charge.”

Another public power company in the area, the Shasta Lake Municipal Utility, had only one tree come down in the storm. “We really didn’t have any problems,” said Doug Lowrance, one of six electrical workers serving 4,600 customers.

That could not be said for the Sacramento Municipal Utility District. “This was the worst storm, in terms of outages, since we lost about 75,000 customers in 1995,” said Chris Capra, a spokesperson for SMUD. About 150,000 customers (a quarter of SMUD’s 580,000 total) were without power at the height of the storm. But, by Friday night SMUD was able to restore power to 100,000 of them, and by Saturday evening only about 18,000 remained in the dark.

HOW PG&E FARED<br>This PUC chart shows roughly how fast PG&E was able to restore power to the nearly 2.5 million customers who lost it during the storms. As of Wednesday, Jan. 9, some 33,000 of them were still without power, and three days later—eight days after the storms hit—some 17,000 were still in the dark.

“We’re very vigilant about service to our customers. … They are first, not investors,” said Capra, taking a swing at investor-owned PG&E.

SMUD has expanded rapidly in recent years, as the Sacramento region has grown, and Capra remarked that the utility’s aggressive vegetation management program and infrastructure improvement, which includes burying power lines, was preparation designed to reduce system failure and down time. He believes it worked.

Still, the 28 line crews that SMUD carries needed to be augmented by additional resources from Roseville, Modesto and the Western Area Power Administration, part of the U.S. Department of Energy. “We had a lot of crews ready before the storm hit, putting ‘dibs’ out before other utilities could get them,” Capra explained.

Experts agree that no large utility company has enough crews of its own to handle the kind of emergency that developed Jan. 4. That would be too costly. As Par Electric’s Unverferth explains it, the utilities save money by hiring his workers as the situation warrants.

The problem during the New Year’s storm was that the weather overwhelmed PG&E’s infrastructure, and it took time to bring it back up. North Valley Division spokesman Paul Moreno called it a “hugely significant” weather event.

“Not every pole is going to stand up to this kind of abuse,” he noted. “We have guys here who’ve been around for 30 years, and they’ve never seen anything like it.”

Although PG&E has PUC-approved maintenance upgrade programs, Moreno admitted that some of its system was built right after World War II—"it’s reaching the end of its useful life.”

That’s one of the reasons why the company is spending twice as much this year on infrastructure improvement—some $3.6 billion—as it did just three years ago. (This year’s expenditure does include additional power plants.)

To people on the ground, though, these are just numbers. They want to know why the power was out so long and how decisions were made to prioritize repair work.

Cohasset resident Maggie Krehbiel knows about emergencies, having worked dispatch for the California Highway Patrol for many years. What rankled Krehbiel, who is on the Cohasset Community Association board, was PG&E’s decision to close the only access road the nearly 900 residents have for 12 hours because of downed power lines.

“I don’t fault the linesmen,” she said. “My issue is with low- and mid-level management who coordinate where crews are sent. … I hope it’s ignorance and not neglect.” She believes her community—now at the center of the power-outage discussion—was not a priority.

“What would have happened if some husband had a heart attack using a chainsaw on a tree or, God forbid, if a baby should choke? There are no trained medical personnel up here and no fire service. It takes 20 to 30 minutes to get someone [from the closest Chico fire station] here in good weather. There’s no excuse for the only road to Cohasset not to be clear.”

Even with the blocked roads and 24-hour line work, Cohasset was without power from “4:41 Friday morning” (Krehbiel reports) until late on Jan. 10—nearly a week later.

“We do know [Cohasset Road] is the only road up there,” PG&E’s Moreno responded. “I wouldn’t say we were ‘keeping the road closed.’ There were multiple problems there. We started addressing [the repair] on Friday, and it was resolved by Saturday.”

Decisions were made systematically and uniformly, Moreno said, looking at safety issues first. The Operations Emergency Center for the entire North Valley Division is on The Midway in Chico. It was there that the division superintendent and district managers assessed the situation in the field and, using predetermined guidelines to prioritize, assigned work to be done first.

Criteria for such judgments begin with “live wire down” conditions. Hospitals, emergency care and convalescent facilities take priority. “If we can pick up the largest blocks [of outages] quickly,” Moreno explained, “we will do that.”

Bo Lingemann, of Chico Construction, also lives in Cohasset. He says PG&E was “pretty good” at getting the work done. Crews got to the downed trees right away, he said, and the information he got about when his power would return was accurate: Thursday night—six days without.

The tumult in Cohasset has prompted county Supervisor Maureen Kirk to convene a public meeting there to talk about what happened during what Krehbiel calls the “disaster.” The meeting is to take place at 7 p.m. today (Jan. 17) at the CCA building.

The meeting is not intended to “place blame,” Krehbiel contended, but rather to debrief on what happened and how problems might be prepared for or “mitigated” in the future through the lessons learned from the storms.