Persistence with PG&E pays offBy Katie Worth
After several high-profile underground electrical fires, San Francisco officials have forced PG&E to change its entire inspection process, and the company will replace manhole covers in The City to prevent them from flying into the air after a blast.
PG&E, which has been under intense public scrutiny for safety on its natural-gas lines following the deadly explosion in San Bruno in September, was the focus of a hearing at City Hall on Monday. City officials explained the steps taken to deal with safety on the company's aging electrical system.
After a transformer explosion in 2005 blew off a manhole on Kearny Street, severely burning a pedestrian, City Administrator Ed Lee began meeting with PG&E officials regularly to press them on safety and reliability problems. The meetings continued through several other major incidents, including the June 2009 cable fire that shot a geyser of flames out a Tenderloin manhole.
In both high-profile cases, the parts that caused the fires had been inspected recently, but the inspections were useless in identifying the lurking danger, Lee told the Public Safety Committee on Monday.
In 2008, PG&E finally changed the way it inspects transformers to a method that can actually determine if there is a risk of explosion, and it is now considering replacing the transformers in San Francisco with safer, newer models, PG&E spokesman Joe Molica said.
After the direct-current cable caught fire in the Tenderloin in 2009, The City was able to persuade PG&E to replace what remains of its DC system with an AC system. Also, the company is replacing circuits in eight neighborhoods that have been most prone to power outages, Molica said.
The next major change will be to replace 125 manhole covers with "swivel lock" caps, which will not blow off when an explosion occurs, but simply raise 4 inches to release gases, Molica said. Flying manhole covers from blasts have the potential to harm people, Lee said.
Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi said PG&E customers have long suffered far more - and lengthier - electrical outages than customers of other utilities in the state. For example, PG&E reported that their average customer suffered 1.31 outages in 2009, while Southern California Edison customers experienced 0.94 and San Diego Gas and Electric customers experienced just 0.54.
However, in part thanks to recent improvements to San Francisco's infrastructure, Molica reported that in 2010, San Francisco customers have had just 0.40 outages each, down 23 percent from last year.
Lee credited, in part, city persistence on the safety issues for the improvements.
"I think maybe five, 10 years ago, nobody paid much attention to this, but I think now there's just a real strong focus on it," he said. "We have a right to demand a higher level of service than we've received in the past, and we've been able to accomplish some changes that if we hadn't given that keener eye on it, it may not have been focused on."
Lights out up north
PG&E customers have a higher rate of power outages per customer each year than comparable utilities in other parts of California.
Copyright ©2010 San Francisco Examiner. Published 11/16/2010.