By Jonathan Marshall
PG&E is making significant and measurable progress toward improving the reliability of its electric service.
And that’s good news for customers.
The company has focused hard in recent years on upgrading its electric reliability performance to better serve customers. With nearly 160,000 miles of electric lines crossing 70,000 square miles of service area, including some of the country’s most rugged and remote mountains, it’s a challenge to keep power flowing in ordinary times, much less during winter storms and summer fire season.
But the good news for customers is that by working smarter, PG&E is making significant and measurable progress toward improving service reliability:
- Over the five years from 2007 to 2011, PG&E customers experienced more than 1.2 million fewer service interruptions. The number of outages per customer fell 20 percent to an all-time low for the company.
- The service interruptions that did occur were a lot shorter as well. PG&E customers experienced 188 million fewer minutes of service interruptions in 2011 than in 2007, producing a 25 percent improvement in the total duration of outages per customer.
“We’ve made significant improvements to our electric reliability performance over the last five years, and we’re committed to continuing to improve electric reliability for our customers,” said P.J. Martinez, PG&E’s vice president of electric asset management.
Some of the improvement can be chalked up to a combination of bravery and skill. Using helicopters to ferry crews to the tops of remote transmission towers in the northern foothills, PG&E this year has been upgrading the capacity and reliability of its high-voltage lines serving customers in Butte, Sutter and Yuba counties—without interrupting service.
Nearer to the coast, in Sonoma County, helicopters this summer hauled steel poles and other equipment to PG&E crews working in steep terrain, far from roads, to fight the corrosive effects of salty ocean air on the utility’s electrical system.
But the utility also has been applying a lot of brainpower to the problem. In 2009, it launched a statistics-based program to identify and upgrade the 400 most problematic circuits that have historically caused the most outages.
Crews have been using infrared technology to identify potential trouble spots so they can repair or replace stressed equipment before it fails. As needed, they also replace power poles, upgrade power lines, install new equipment like animal or bird guards, and trim trees or other vegetation to prevent contact with electrical lines that can cause short circuits.
All that attention has paid off for customers ranging from Bakersfield to the town of Anderson in Shasta County. Over the first three years of the program, outages on upgraded circuits have been reduced by 30 percent, while the average duration of outages has decreased by 50 percent.
PG&E is also installing the latest Smart Grid technology to slash the amount of time it takes to restore power to customers during an outage.
For example, PG&E is automating more than 400 of its distribution circuits with intelligent switches, which automatically reroute power in case of an outage, isolating the problem and restoring power for many customers in a few minutes rather than an hour or more. During one outage on October 11 in the Bakersfield area, one of these switches restored power to 2,129 customers in less than three minutes.
In all of this work, PG&E is prioritizing safety even ahead of reliability. Steps such as beefing up wildfire patrols, enhancing inspections to minimize the likelihood of energized wires coming down, and even installing new locking manhole covers in key urban areas, should go a long way toward ensuring the public that PG&E’s electrical system is safe.
None of this comes free, of course. Starting in 2014, PG&E is asking state regulators for $1.25 billion over currently authorized spending levels to pay for additional capital investment for gas and electric distribution and electric generation infrastructure, improvements in customer service, and new technology to improve safety and system reliability.
PG&E’s electric service remains a good value. In 2010, the last year for which data are available, average monthly bills for PG&E’s residential electric customers were 18 percent ($19) below the national average. And in the 10 years to 2012, PG&E’s residential electric rates rose only 1.8 percent annually, compared to 2.5 percent for all consumer prices (inflation). Energy prices as a whole rose more than twice as fast—4.0 percent annually.
Email Jonathan Marshall at email@example.com.