PG&E loses power for 2 million

Roughly 2 million Pacific Gas and Electric customers — households and businesses with usually more than one occupant — had no electricity at some time during the storm series that began Friday with a hurricanelike monster storm and still continues sporadically battering Northern California. That was 40 percent of all PG&E customers, an absolutely unacceptable blackout rate.

The Bay Area suffered some 1.1 million power losses, more than half the total. As of Tuesday afternoon, San Francisco reportedly had only 10 customers still without electricity and the Peninsula had 600. However, more than a quarter-million customers were blacked out for at least 24 hours and 100,000 had no power all weekend.

We expected PG&E to be better prepared for massive statewide storms by 2008. The utility should have learned more from the eight days of storms in December 2002 that blacked out 1.97 million customers and left some without power for 22 days.

PG&E does say it increased spending for maintenance and upgrades of the electrical grid from $1.6 billion to $2.9 billion since 2004 and intends to budget $3.6 billion this year. On the other hand, PG&E fielded more than 3,200 repair technicians during the 2002 blackouts, according to the state’s annual service report. And this time the utility is claiming 700 repair crews out. Since a crew normally consists of anywhere from two to five technicians, PG&E did not have appreciably more repair technicians available six years after the last major blackouts and might have actually had less.

PG&E executives said even the most thorough preventive maintenance could not be expected to prevent all blackouts from a major storm such as the Friday onslaught, in which a combination of heavy rain, high winds, lightning, flooding and mountain snow pushed trees into power lines, knocked over power poles and short-circuited transformers along some 500 miles of the California transmission grid.

PG&E also said it began seriously preparing for the Friday storm eight days early, as the ominous weather forecasts began arriving. Storage depots were fully stocked with replacement equipment, all company field technicians were placed on storm alert and preliminary arrangements were made to bring in reinforcements from out of area if needed.

In retrospect, what seems to have been lacking was a capability to assemble a repair personnel force sufficient to immediately overwhelm worst-case damages from a major storm. Technicians ultimately were flown in from as far as Kansas, because the usual teams from Southern California and Oregon were too busy fighting their own local outages.

The Examiner has only good things to say about the dedicated, effective PG&E repair workers who brought electricity back to some 1.3 million blacked-out homes and businesses between Friday and Saturday, working outdoors all night through the Bay Area’s own version of a hurricane. But what we need next time is a lot more repair crews at work as soon as the storm hits, more PG&E technicians plus more backup crews from other utilities brought here in advance.

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