Outage responses fuel power debate

Published on

Record Searchlight (Redding, California)
January 8, 2008

by Ryan Sabalow, Record Searchlight

Outage responses fuel power debate;

Private vs. public energy at center of discussion

When gusts from a massive storm knocked out power across much of the
north state, two power agencies had their lights on faster than anyone

Redding Electric Utility and Trinity Public Utility District in
Weaverville both had power restored on the day of the storm, while
privately owned power companies Pacific Gas and Electric and Pacific
Power struggled, leaving thousands of customers in the dark for longer
than four days.

On Monday afternoon, some 1,438 customers in Shasta County and
another 3,170 in Tehama County remained without power, PG&E
officials said.

The private companies’ responses to the outages are prime fodder for a long running debate over energy regulation.

Mindy Spatt, a spokeswoman for The Utility Reform Network, a San
Francisco based advocacy group that lobbies for greater regulation of
the energy industry, said the outage spoke for itself.

"A PG&E customer is looking at their neighbor in Redding
and saying, ‘Why do they have power and why not me?’" Spatt said. "This
is the kind of customer dissatisfaction that has many communities
looking for aggregation or public power."

But PG&E officials say it’s not so simple — the storm’s
impact was far worse in the much more expansive rural areas served by
the private companies.

Scott Goldschmidt, electrical construction supervisor with
PG&E in Red Bluff, said you can’t fairly compare a municipal power
agency and a rural energy distributor’s response to the outages caused
by Friday’s storms.

"The damage has been so widespread across California …
normally we’d be able to bring in crews from other areas," Goldschmidt
said. "Because of the widespread nature of this windstorm, we haven’t
been able to pull crews. Every area has been holding their own."

Also, many of PG&E’s local outages are in inaccessible rural areas, he said.

On Monday, crews in helicopters buzzed the north state looking
for outages in isolated areas unreachable by ground crews, Goldschmidt

The size and range of the outages are striking, said PG&E spokeswoman Lisa Randle.

At the height of the storm, 128,000 were reported in PG&E’s
north valley coverage area that serves Shasta, Glenn, Tehama, Butte and
Plumas counties.

Randle said some 31 miles of lines were down in the north
valley, 3 miles of which were in Shasta County. Twenty-nine power poles
also fell in Shasta County.

Randle said it was the worst outage she’s seen over such a large area in her 10 years as spokeswoman.

"I’ve never seen the extreme amount of damage like this," she said. "It went clear from the valley floor to the mountains."

Another 2,700 customers on Friday were without power farther
north in Pacific Power’s coverage area in the Yreka and Mount Shasta

Pacific Power had electricity restored Monday morning to all
but 37 customers in southern Siskiyou County, spokesman Tom Gauntt

The city utility companies fared much better.

Redding Electric Spokesman Pat Keener said about 3,000 customers
lost power at the height of the storm, and there were hundreds of
individual outages reported in the city.

Power was restored within just a few hours Friday afternoon to
all but 150 customers. Only a handful of those, who were waiting for
private contractors to restore damaged equipment at their homes,
remained in the dark Monday, Keener said.

Similarly, of the 800 customers who lost power in Weaverville,
all had their power restored on Friday before 4 a.m., a spokesman for
the Trinity Public Utility District said.

But Keener said Redding’s utility crews have a much easier time
getting to outages in the city, and that’s why crews were able to
restore power so much more efficiently during the storm.

Redding Electric Utility serves 86,000 customers inside the 69 square miles of the Redding city limits.

"Our equipment is very easy to get to," Keener said.

Compare that to PG&E, which maintains 123,054 miles of
electric distribution lines and 18,610 circuit miles of interconnected
transmission lines that stretch from Eureka in the north to Bakersfield
in the south. Some 5.1 million customers in all, according to the
company’s Web site.

After more than three days without power, Lynette Gooch of
Whitmore said she grew frustrated that her community was lumped in with
other areas hundreds of miles away when it came to determining when
crews were available to fix outages.

The 38-year-old owner of Tuscan Heights Lavender Gardens, who
had electricity finally restored around 9:30 p.m. Sunday, said she was
worried that many of her elderly or lower-income neighbors couldn’t
afford the luxury of a generator like she had to keep the power on
during the storm. She said she was concerned they could be left out in
the sub-freezing temperatures.

She called PG&E to urge them to help, but she said she was
told that areas with greater numbers of people without power were given
priority, even though those people didn’t live in the snow.

"To them, we’re just this flat map — this flat county," Gooch
said. "They don’t have the ability to differentiate the areas in terms
of elevation. People who get snow or are looking at 30 degrees or lower
(temperatures) should be a priority."

But she also credited her telephone company, Frontier, for
their work to help ensure that its customers still had phone and
Internet service.

"They were out here several times a day to check on the lines," she said.

But what can customers do if they feel they’ve been left in the dark too long?

Not much — other than call their power company and complain or
file a complaint with a California Public Utilities Commission, which
regulates power companies.

Terrie Prosper, a spokeswoman for the CPUC, said if consumers
have complaints about their service, they can call 1-800-649-7570 or
fill out a complaint form online at www.cpuc.ca.gov.

However, if customers feel they’re entitled to money for damages
caused by an outage, Prosper said, they may want to consider a small
claims lawsuit because the CPUC doesn’t get involved in claims

That’s why Doug Heller, executive director for the Foundation
for Taxpayer & Consumer Rights, another anti-deregulation group,
said municipal districts often have the advantage of being more
accountable to their customers, if only because those in charge are

Angry customers can always go to a city council meeting and complain if they feel they haven’t been treated fairly, he said.

"They’re not just customers; they’re also constituents," Heller
said. "You can’t vote out PG&E, and you can’t vote out the CPUC."

Randle said PG&E keeps itself accountable following an
outage by critiquing every level of its emergency outage response

"We’ll be asking what worked, what didn’t work, and what we can
do differently," she said. "That will be occurring throughout the
Reporter Ryan Sabalow can be reached at 225-8344 or at [email protected]

Consumer Watchdog
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