By Jennifer Robison
PG&E is getting by with a little help from its friends.
In a wild month that brought some of California’s most intense winter weather in half a decade, crews from energy companies in other Western states have stepped up to augment PG&E’s restoration response as part of a regional mutual aid agreement.
“No company is staffed to handle every crisis or emergency Mother Nature sends its way,” said Evermary Hickey, PG&E director of Preparedness & Response Support. “We staff up to handle our normal course of business. When we face extreme events, we respond with all of our possible resources. But every now and then, we have an unusual incident that demands additional resources.”
January has definitely been unusual. A series of major winter storms has rolled across the PG&E service area in six waves since Jan. 7, dumping more than a dozen feet of snow in parts of the Sierra and nearly 2 feet of rain in the Santa Cruz Mountains. About 350 PG&E crews and 50 mutual aid crews from other energy companies restored power to roughly 680,000 customers between Jan. 7-12.
On Sunday afternoon (Jan. 22), PG&E had 345 electric crews responding to outages following intense storms. About 40 mutual aid crews from Washington, Oregon, Arizona and Southern California were assisting. More than 610,000 customers were restored this past week through Sunday (Jan. 22).
For affordability and efficiency, PG&E maintains the staffing it needs to operate during its normal course of business. In exceptional times — after intense weather, earthquakes or wildfires — the energy company brings in help.
Think of the mutual aid arrangements in terms of fire response: Your local department can put out a house fire, but might need to call on surrounding agencies to douse a six-alarm warehouse blaze.
Such helping hands are key for two reasons.
First, safety is PG&E’s top priority. The company’s line crews have been restoring weather-related outages nearly nonstop since the first week of January, Hickey said. Such an extended response period can cause fatigue. Mutual aid gives PG&E crews the opportunity to rest and stay fresh.
Also, response to extreme weather is more complex and requires more time and labor, especially where heavy snow, flooding and mudslides affect access to damaged equipment.
Robert Trumbull, who works in Emergency Management, oversaw 20 crews from Southern California Edison in the Peninsula division from Jan. 16-17. The crews focused on the Peninsula’s coast so that PG&E crews could concentrate on the Bay side.
“It dramatically increased our response time to customers who had been out for a long duration,” Trumbull said. “We had an influx of fresh crews that were ready to go.”
PG&E returns the favor when storms strike other areas. The company sent 250 employees and more than 100 pieces of equipment to support restoration efforts in New York and New Jersey following Superstorm Sandy in 2012. It also sent about 70 crews to Washington and Idaho in 2015, after more than 180,000 customers of several energy companies lost power during winter storms. And it placed about 130 employees on standby to aid in restoration in Florida after Hurricane Matthew swept across the state in October.
Beyond the immediate benefit of getting the lights back on more quickly, mutual aid pays long-term dividends for all energy companies that cooperate.
“We share our best practices and learn from each other,” Hickey said. “It makes every company across the West stronger operationally.”
Email Currents at Currents@pge.com.