The blackout factor - Page 2

PG&E's poor reliability record costs businesses millions
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"Systems can be managed to minimize storm related events — we do [that]."

MONEY FOR MAINTENANCE

There are a number of reasons why these public power sources are more reliable than PG&E: size of the service area, age of the infrastructure, administration of the organization.

"The general concept is that the more complex the topography is and the older the urban areas are ... the more unreliable the system is going to be," said Mark Loy, a ratepayer advocate at the CPUC.

"For PG&E there are negative powers of scale," he continued. "They are so large and spread out that being bigger actually makes things more difficult for them to fix. In San Francisco, the circuitry PG&E uses hasn't even been mapped out in some places, so it is all haphazard and harder to keep on top of."

Public power agencies also have more incentive to invest in maintaining their infrastructure.

Patrick Valath, manager of electric engineering at the Palo Alto Utilities Department, attributes his city's annual average of only 65 minutes of power disruption to an "aggressive and sustained infrastructure replacement program that is spread over many years."

Alameda Municipal Power's Alan Hangar said the annual average of only 25 minutes of outage in that city is due to years of building stability and redundancy into the system.

Santa Clara is by far the most reliable utility company in the area, Owens said, and is often ranked second in the nation. "Our current operating philosophy is to load the system with only half of what it is capable of carrying," he said. "That allows us to switch a customer to another circuit quickly, so we restore their power and make repairs on our time, not their time."

He also noted that the vast majority of Santa Clara's power lines are underground, making them far less susceptible to damage from storms, accidents, and other interference.

Municipal utilities have more freedom than investor-owned companies like PG&E to shift the focus away from profits, revenue, and shareholder returns toward quality and customer satisfaction.

"We are customer-driven," Owens said. "They repeatedly tell us that reliability is the No. 1 priority. The cost of power is second. We have some customers who say they lose $1 million a minute in an outage, and that by far trumps the cost they pay for energy."

THE RIPPLE EFFECT

Business owners don't need studies to tell them they are losing money because of PG&E.

Arienne Landry, owner of Just for You Café in San Francisco's Dogpatch neighborhood, faced a blackout during lunch service at her café several months ago.

"The power was out for four or five hours," she said. "During that time I'm paying people to work, but I can't serve customers without power. I probably lost a couple of grand in sales. It's not a severe loss, but it takes a little while to catch up."

Birbeck of Budget Signs remembers a power disruption that occurred when she was in the middle of two large printing jobs. She and an employee returned to the shop at 10:30 p.m. after a neighbor alerted her that the power had returned. She said they worked through the night to complete the jobs on deadline.

"They were our two largest jobs for our two largest companies at the time," she said. "Both jobs were over $10,000. Potential loss of either or both of these companies would have been disastrous to a small company. I really couldn't even put a price on it."

And the cost of an outage doesn't stop at that initial business. If the power goes out at Birbeck's sign shop and a sign doesn't get finished and a deadline isn't met, Birbeck might lose money or even a client. But that client might have needed that sign for a business event, and that business event may have needed that client ...

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