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In The News

PG&E Preps for Whatever Havoc Mother Nature Wreaks This Winter

For PG&E, something as simple as keeping work truck rear-view mirrors free of water spots can make a big difference when it comes to staying safe during this upcoming storm season.

A PG&E employee, left, helps restore power in Marin County following a rain and wind storm last December. (Photo by James Green.)

Rick May, temporary supervisor at PG&E’s Hollister yard, said he reminds his electric line worker crews to clean their mirrors every few days, especially when the weather begins to get chillier.

“You’re going down a road and you get some sun on your mirror but you’ve got a bunch of water spots on there,” May said. “You might as well as not even have a mirror.”

It’s a small thing, but it shows that PG&E people throughout the service area are already thinking about winter. And it’s just one of the many ways the utility is ensuring it can respond quickly to damage caused by rain, wind and snow storms or whatever Mother Nature throws its way this winter.

Last winter was mild with much of the storm-related damage occurring in November and December.

In-house meteorologists provide daily weather forecasts

Keeping close tabs on the weather is PG&E’s team of meteorologists, a group that has provided the company with accurate weather predictions since 1937.

Every day, the department provides forecasts to help determine how much natural gas will be needed, the estimated number of power outages from storms for preparedness and response purposes and even information for PG&E’s hydro power production. The PG&E long-range forecast outlook shows increased storm activity in the late fall and early winter.

During a recent winter storm exercise, Gabriel Ogundimu and Kirsten Hagfors track deployed crews throughout PG&E's service area. (Photo by David Kligman.)

“We’re always watching,” meteorologist Scott Strenfel said.

Elsewhere throughout PG&E, much work is being done to get the utility winter-ready, including extensive vegetation pruning around electric lines, readying its Mobile Command Vehicles and installing new smart grid technology to reduce the duration of outages.

The company recently held its annual winter storm exercise, a yearly drill mandated by the California Public Utilities Commission.

PG&E’s emergency operations center in San Francisco was the headquarters for the exercise, which simulated the January 2010 storm series that brought heavy rain, snow and strong southerly winds, causing significant damage, power outages and flooding. Regional operations centers throughout PG&E also took part.

This year, PG&E is using new tools to help oversee and coordinate the massive task of restoring power during winter storm outages.

One of those tools is a newly refined database — replacing outdated white boards and spread sheets — that can be accessed by emergency coordinators throughout PG&E. The tool gives emergency operations staff an at-a-glance picture of storm damage, staffing and what needs to be done to make repairs.

Resource management tool provides storm response big picture

Although the database was first used in 2012, it’s being refined this year to make it more user-friendly. The resource management tool tracks employees, verifies they’ve received safety instructions, how long they’ve been working, rest periods and even whether they need lodging.

Chico-based emergency specialist Kristine Gorbet said the tool shows “what’s really going on.” She said it was most successfully used during PG&E’s response to the Clover Fire earlier this year in Shasta County.

“We had people out there working right in the fire vicinity and we kept very close tabs with who was out there and where they were,” she said. “It allows leadership to take a look and see what’s going on and support an area that’s struggling before they even know it.”

Technology also is helping electric workers more quickly find equipment in the field. This winter, every frontline electric employee will receive a GPS device with pre-programmed locations of transformers, fuse boxes, main line switches and other equipment. These devices will replace 300-page map books that are the size of a phone book.

The devices also will benefit out-of-town crews who are assisting restore power and may be unfamiliar with the area.

Also new this year is the more widespread use of estimators who will be first on scene to assess damage during major outages. This summer, 200 estimators from PG&E’s entire service area were trained.

Repairs made sooner if estimators assess damage first

PG&E has used estimators in the past but using more of them in times of need will greatly improve customer satisfaction and reliability by allowing troublemen and line workers to focus on repairs, Gorbet said.

“This is a planned approach to put more eyes onto the field,” she said. “A lot of times we’re waiting for assessments. If we can do them sooner we can make the repairs sooner.”

PG&E crews brave all types of weather, including during this snowstorm northeast of Chico, to keep the lights on for customers. (Currents Archive Photo.)

Tony Mar is PG&E’s director of electric maintenance and construction for the utility’s Northern Region. He said getting ready for winter is a yearlong project and includes the thousands of power poles replaced this year, reliability projects, preparing off-road vehicles and making sure crews have proper protective clothing and safety hazard information.

The unknown is the bad weather itself. Will it come early, late or in some locations not at all? Early snow can be problematic when leaves are still on trees, adding weight and causing more damage than usual, Mar said.

But whatever the conditions, Mar said PG&E’s crews will perform admirably.

“I’m confident that we’re trained and ready for anything,” he said.

When it comes to the repairs, Tim Urmann is one of PG&E’s many employees called on to restore power for customers. The line worker, who will begin his 30th winter with PG&E, is based in Canyon Dam in Plumas County, one of the snowiest locations in the company’s territory.

It’s not easy work. But he knows the drill.

“You’re at home and you’re anxious because you know that phone is going to ring,” Urmann said. “It’s storming and howling outside. And sure enough that phone rings. And off you go.”

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