Blackout backtrack: PG&E fine-tunes outage – March 10, 2010

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Kevin L. Hoover

Eye Editor

ARCATA – Responding to concerns about economic and public safety impacts expressed by Arcata business and government, PG&E has modified its plans for this weekend’s planned power outage. Tuesday morning, City officials and PG&E personnel gathered at City Hall to exchange details on areas affected, the outage’s expected duration and to coordinate response.

Electricity will be turned off for more than 6,000 Arcata customers beginning this Saturday, March 13 at 2 p.m. and continuing through Sunday until as late as noon. PG&E said the shutdown is necessary to allow it to safely modernize its I Street substation, improving long-term power reliability.

Under the new plan, some 586 PG&E customers previously scheduled for blackout will remain online, and  the Plaza area will remain electrically empowered. But to balance that out, some 750 additional residential customers not previously included in the outage will now lose electrical service during the shutdown.

  • The final list of impacted areas is:
  • Southeast Arcata: Fickle Hill Road, Sunny Brae, Buttermilk Lane and Old Arcata Road south to Hyland Street.
  • West Arcata: Arcata Bottom west of V Street and north of Vassaide Road to the Mad River.
  • Central Arcata: From Sixth Street north along the Alliance Road corridor to 27th Street (aka Simpson Lane)  between I and Q streets.
  • McKinleyville: West of Central Avenue including McKinleyville Avenue from the Mad River north to Murray Road.
  • Newly added: K and 11th streets west to Janes Road and north to Foster Avenue, encompassing a large area of the Arcata Bottom west of central Arcata.

The final list of impacted areas is:

Southeast Arcata: Fickle Hill Road, Sunny Brae, Buttermilk Lane and Old Arcata Road south to Hyland Street.

West Arcata: Arcata Bottom west of V Street and north of Vassaide Road to the Mad River.

Central Arcata: From Sixth Street north along the Alliance Road corridor to 27th Street (aka Simpson Lane)  between I and Q streets.

McKinleyville: West of Central Avenue including McKinleyville Avenue from the Mad River north to Murray Road.

Newly added: K and 11th streets west to Janes Road and north to Foster Avenue, encompassing a large area of the Arcata Bottom west of central Arcata.

Along with the Plaza and G, the G and H Street corridor up through Northtown will remain online. Alleviating some safety concerns of City officials, traffic lights along Samoa Boulevard will remain on. Also retaining power will be the Wastewater Treatment Plant on South G Street, City Hall, the Police Department and Uniontown Shopping Center. Humboldt State University, Mad River Community Hospital and all of Valley West will stay powered up as well.

At Tuesday’s meeting, PG&E produced a map for City personnel to review, with affected areas highlighted in yellow. However, the map was somewhat difficult to interpret, being a sort of hybrid road map and schematic diagram, with cryptic electrical symbols and not all streets delineated. PG&E refused to give the City a copy of the  map, both because it contained “proprietary” information and because of modern-day security concerns.

PG&E engineers explained that the 22-hour shutdown period is only a window, during which power will be shot off in stages so as to maximize safety and cushion the shock to equipment.

It is unlikely that any one customer will be without power for the entire interval.

City, Arcata Fire and PG&E personnel confer over a map of planned outage areas.

Public Works is bringing in generators to keep water tanks filled. But residents should minimize use so as to conserve available water in case of a major fire.

City Manager Randy Mendosa asked if, during future emergencies, PG&E could provide real-time information on the City’s electrical grid, but was told that security concerns prevented this. Deputy Director of Environmental Services Karen Diemer said that during recent emergencies, Office of Emergency Services personnel monitored radio station KHUM in Ferndale for status updates.

One of the areas slated for shutdown is the Community Center, which happens to be hosting the Rotary Club of Arcata Sunrise “Five Alarm Flambeaux” fundraiser for the Arcata Volunteer Fire Department Saturday night.

Ironically, PG&E spokesperson Jana Morris had previously stated that volunteer fire department fundraisers are events the utility is particularly sensitive to when planning outages.

That event may have escaped PG&E’s notice because of minimal publicity. Colorful flyers appeared around town advertising the event by calendar date, but not day of the week. No press release was issued, and multiple phone calls to AVFD and Rotary officials were required to elicit the nominal three-line announcement that appears on page 1.

Rotarian Craig Newman said the popular event doesn’t require major outreach. “We haven’t gone out en masse to the public because we sell enough tickets with the flyers,” he said.

AVFD co-organizer Dave White said ticket sales had been lagging, but perked up last week. He expects healthy attendance at the event, which helps fund a new fire station.

The Community Center will not be online, but it has a powerful generator which will keep it going for the Fire Department flambeaux. Aditional generators will be brought in to provide parking lot lighting.

Mendosa said it was the flambeaux blackout that prompted his call to PG&E Monday, March 1. “That’s when I heard, ‘Your entire city’s going to be out,’” Mendosa said.

He immediately became concerned about public safety on the Plaza on a Saturday night. Bars will resort to candles for lighting, and customers headed out into the streets without streetlights pose obvious risks.

Another major concern was the economic hit Plaza-area restaurants were going to take from losing a weekend night of business.

Chris Smith and Bill Chino, proprietors of Abruzzi and Plaza Grill in Jacoby’s Storehouse, aren’t the type to grumble. But the partners wore long faces last week as they contemplated a null night on what would normally be one bustling with patrons.

Mendosa said he’d talked to people in the business community who are still reeling from the Saturday, Jan. 9 power outage resulting from that day’s earthquake. He asked for some amelioration or rescheduling of the outage, but wasn’t successful until he called PG&E headquarters in San Francisco. Then he got results.

According to PG&E’s Morris, the utility consulted its engineers, who found a way to maintain electrical power to 586 of its customers in the critical downtown area by installing a special 12-kilovolt overhead switch.

Mendosa applauded PG&E’s responsiveness to City concerns, saying that “We averted a potential calamity downtown.” But he made it clear that he hadn’t asked PG&E to cut anyone else out of the power grid for the night to compensate for the Plaza power-up.

City Hall oversight oversights

The PG&E plug-pulling seemed to catch City Hall flat-footed. Preparations were fragmentary, and official notification of citizens continues to lag.

Mendosa told the City Council last week that PG&E had notified various City staffmembers of the interruption in service as far back as December, with notices to individual department heads and middle managers who are responsible for various City buildings and facilities.

“Everyone kind of looked at how their facilities were affected and made contingency plans,” he said. But no integrated response was formulated.

Mendosa blamed the “piecemeal” nature of the notifications for his not being aware of the  overall magnitude of the outage until Monday, March 1.

“We’re kind of a sizeable organization,” he said. “These notices go to individual departments; whoever pays the bills. Everyone looked at it as rather routine service interruptions.”

Though an unknown number of City Hall personnel, including department heads and middle managers, were aware of a coming power cut, no one compared notes and realized that something larger was afoot.

Mendosa placed responsibility squarely on PG&E for not giving “proper context” to the shutdown notice, or conveying the actual maginitude of the City-wide shutdown with its public safety and economic concerns.

“We knew there was a power outage coming, but not when, the duration or the areas affected,” Mendosa said.

At Tuesday’s meeting, Mendosa expressed gratitude to PG&E for attending the briefing, and relief that the planned outage isn’t going to be as widespread as he had anticipated. “Thanks for coming,” he told the PG&E technicians. “It’s much clearer now.”

As the sole reporter present at the meeting attempted to question a PG&E engineer about the planned outage area, Mendosa interrupted, addressing the reporter by name from across the Council Chamber and abruptly ordering that the interview be halted so that he could make an announcement. The question being asked at the time, in response to a reader’s question, was where “Simpson Lane” is. It turned out to be an old-time term for 27th Street which still appears on PG&E electrical grid charts.

When group discussion resumed, Mendosa cautioned attendees to be circumspect in their statements because “the newspaper is writing things down.” He later apologized for what he called “the stupid and inappropriate comment,” casting it as an “off-the-cuff joke.”

The attempts to suppress routine news gathering were somewhat confounding, since citizen interest is steadily mounting, with people on the streets and in stores quizzing each other as to what they know about the coming weekend’s situation. But apart from a brief discussion near the end of last week’s City Council meeting, City Hall has been all but silent on the coming blackout.

As of Wednesday, the City hasn’t issued any formal notice to citizens about the outage or its extent. Nor has it outlined any public safety issues for citizens to be mindful of, listed emergency resources, requested water conservation or made any other recommendations for best practices during the blackout.

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