Bay Area PG&E Power Outages Worsened During 2016 Amid Fierce Winter

SAN FRANCISCO >> Fierce winter storms contributed to an erosion in electricity reliability for PG&E during 2016 compared with 2015, when the embattled utility achieved a best-ever performance for power outages, the company said Tuesday.

The average duration of a power outage in 2016 was 109 minutes, PG&E reported. That was up 13.5 percent from the average of 96 minutes per outage for 2015.

“The slight decline in year-over-year reliability can mostly be attributed to stormy El Nino weather early in the year,” PG&E said.

The 96 minutes in 2015 had marked a record low for the utility and the only time in the last five years when PG&E kept power outages below an average duration of 100 minutes, according to figures from the utility.

“It’s our job to provide safe and reliable power to our customers,” said Pat Hogan, a senior vice president of PG&E electricity operations.

San Francisco-based PG&E has spent $15 billion over the last five years to enhance and harden its electricity transmission and distribution operations, the utility said.

The erosion in reliability during 2016 snapped a string of several years of improved service for PG&E. Power reliability improved each year from 2012 through 2015, the company said.

As recently as 2011, the average duration of power outages was 142 minutes, which was 30 percent higher than the 2016 average, and 48 percent higher than the record low in 2015.

Ever since a fatal pipeline explosion in San Bruno in September 2010, the utility has been under pressure to improve the safety and reliability of both its gas and electricity operations. The disaster led to a record-setting $1.6 billion in regulatory fines imposed on PG&E, and guilty verdicts in a criminal trial that branded PG&E as a convicted felon.

The integration of advanced communications and control technologies throughout the electric grid continues to enhance the resiliency of the system and helps identify and restore power outages more quickly, according to PG&E.

Among the upgrades: PG&E in 2015 opened a $40 million electricity-control nerve center in Concord, one of three in the state aimed at improving reliability.

The Concord complex is the primary center for electric operations in the Bay Area and Central Coast. The other such nerve centers are in Fresno and Rocklin. The Concord center handles 50 percent of the electricity responsibilities for the PG&E power-distribution system and oversees power operations for 3.1 million customers.

“The hard work of our employees coupled with the investments we continue to make” have created a “smarter, more reliable grid,” Hogan said.

Still, some of the years of improvements for reliability coincided with California’s drought and a series of mild winters with scarce rain and snow.

“Reliability includes a number of different factors in any given year, and we’re very proud of the improvement we’ve made over the last decade,” PG&E spokesman Matt Nauman said Tuesday.

Officials with a consumer group were skeptical that PG&E has achieved improvements primarily with its own work.

“What isn’t clear is whether the improved reliability is in fact PG&E spending money, or if it’s weather related and something PG&E doesn’t control,” said Mindy Spatt, a spokeswoman for The Utility Reform Network, or TURN.

TURN also questions the effectiveness of smart meters, on which PG&E has spent about $2 billion.

“PG&E claimed that smart meters would reduce power outages,” Spatt said. “It’s possible PG&E has improved, or it’s possible that PG&E just got lucky with the weather in prior years.”