Utility Sturm und Drang

By Published On: January 11, 2008

The heavy winter storms this week and late last week left millions of California utility customers in the dark, many for 48 hours or longer. In Pacific Gas & Electric territory in Northern and Central California, 2.5 million ratepayers–about half of the large utility’s customers–suffered outages following strong winds, heavy rains, and flooding, as well as blizzard conditions in the Sierra Nevada January 4 and 5. More than 792 miles of distribution lines, 844 poles, and 1,035 transformers were damaged by the severe weather, PG&E reported January 10. After the second, less intense, storm hit Northern California January 7, all but 37,500 PG&E customers, representing about 1.5 percent of customers, remained without power. That included 2,250 blacked out in the San Francisco Bay Area, according to PG&E. Delays in restoring power to the affected customers were attributed largely to flooded roads and downed trees that interfered with the PG&E crews’ access. About one-fourth of the Sacramento Municipal Utility District ratepayers–150,000–lost power at the peak of last week’s storm. Whole neighborhoods were blacked out because of structural damage to electric infrastructure from high winds. Power was restored to two-thirds of the customers within a few hours, said Chris Capra, SMUD spokesperson. As of January 10, 30-40 customers remained without power. That was because their personal electrical equipment, which they and not SMUD are responsible for, was damaged. Outages also occurred in Southern California, where the storm proved the biggest in three years. Both Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric dispatched line crews to Northern California to help PG&E restore service. Edison reportedly sent 80 workers to help fix lines in the Monterey area the first week of the New Year. SDG&E sent 40 employees to the San Francisco Bay area to help PG&E restore power. PG&E said it mobilized more than 100 crews from as far as Kansas. “We’re proud that our crews restored service in less than 48 hours to 95 percent of customers who lost power, despite the severity of the storms,” stated Mark Johnson, vice president for electrical operations and engineering. Some 301,400 Edison customers lost power, but many only momentarily, during the brunt of the storm. The company restored power to all but 205 by January 6. The heavy weather caused power to fail for 43,000 Los Angeles Department of Water & Power customers. By Sunday, January 6, the muni had fully restored power. The storm brought substantial rainfall to San Diego County, causing 15,300 customers to lose power in SDG&E territory, the company said. On January 9, the governor added San Francisco, Yolo County, and Sacramento to the list of counties designated as disaster areas. The former two counties are served by PG&E, and Sacramento is served by SMUD. The utilities thus may seek cost recovery for their storm related repair work. PG&E estimated it spent about $20 million as of January 10. That figure does not include the cost of assisting crews. SMUD did not have a cost estimate by press time.

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