PG&E opens a new gas pipeline control center

Customers still can’t trust PG&E

In an upgrade prompted by the deadly San Bruno gas pipeline blast, PG&E has opened a $38 million state-of-the-art complex in San Ramon that is now the nerve center for the utility’s far-flung and closely scrutinized natural gas system, PG&E said Thursday.

The facility, tucked away in the Bishop Ranch office park, uses computers, banks of monitors and high-speed digital connections to give PG&E engineers, crews and other workers real-time information about what is happening with the utility’s natural gas system.

“Everything that provides real-time information about the health and status of the system has all been moved into one place,” said Melvin Christopher, senior director for PG&E gas system operations.

The gas control center quietly went online late last week, less than two weeks before the third anniversary of a natural gas explosion that killed eight people and wrecked a San Bruno neighborhood.

Is the new system capable of helping prevent another San Bruno?

“Combined with other upgrades of the system, this center absolutely reduces the chances of a San Bruno situation occurring again,” Christopher said.

The center oversees 7,000 miles of gas transmission pipelines and 42,000 miles of distribution pipes. Employees in the center have access to thousands of bits of data that are refreshed every 10 seconds.

“For the first time, we are moving from a monitoring and response system to being predictive and proactive,” Christopher said.

He said the new gas control system, with its computers and hundreds of screens, might someday evolve into a state of “artificial intelligence” as it learns more about the PG&E gas pipeline network.

San Francisco-based PG&E also is making San Ramon the headquarters of its natural gas operations, which stretch throughout Northern and Central California, from the Oregon border to the Central Valley’s Bakersfield area.

By the end of this year, the utility will have about 1,600 gas system employees working in San Ramon. About 150 people work in the new control center at any one time, around the clock, every day.

Located in a long room that takes up the top floor of one of the Bishop Ranch buildings, the center is reminiscent of an air traffic control center at an airport, or the mission control facilities at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

In the control room, PG&E employees study computers, maps of different parts of the far-flung pipeline system, digital readouts and other electronic data. They are connected to the gas pipeline system through lightning-fast fiber-optic cables. The floor with the control center alone is connected with 100 miles of network cables.

Some critics of PG&E acknowledge that the gas control center is a step forward, but they say the new complex still is not enough to guarantee the safety of the system.

“PG&E probably is right that this is some progress, but even if you have the best control center in the world, it’s the overall infrastructure and the people on the ground that really guide and determines the safety of the system,” said state Sen. Jerry Hill, who represents a Peninsula legislative district that includes San Bruno. “This is only one aspect of a safe system.”

The utility is under fire for faulty record keeping that the National Transportation Safety Board said contributed to the San Bruno blast and that continues to be a problem.

“PG&E still can’t be confident, and the customers can’t be confident, that PG&E knows enough about its system to know that it’s safe,” said Thomas Long, legal director with The Utility Reform Network, a consumer group.

The gas control center is getting a major digital boost from crews that are creating GPS coordinates for all of the natural gas pipelines in the system. Those coordinates will be stored in digital files and updated regularly. With this information, the utility will be able to have real-time information about the location of all of its pipes.

“In earthquake country, gas pipelines tend to shift,” said Brittany Chord, a PG&E spokeswoman. “We will also know how third-party digging is affecting our pipelines. The whole idea of all of this is to have a better idea of how the gas system is doing.”