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Palo Alto Utilities breeds mistrust with lack of transparency around outages

Uploaded: Apr 4, 2021
A week ago the electricity went out across a large section of Palo Alto. About 7000 homes and small businesses lost power for two hours in the evening. That’s about one-fourth of the utility’s customers. The utility said it was due to “an issue with the Park Blvd substation”. Two months before that power went out for about 4500 customers for 3 hours in the morning. An unlucky few had no power for up to ten hours. The utility attributed the outage to “high winds and tree limbs impacting electrical equipment”, with a more specific explanation for the longer outage that affected a small subset of customers.

Palo Alto’s track record for outages isn’t great. The most recent data I could find is from 2019, as reported to the Energy Information Administration. I compiled the California data into this spreadsheet, with some breakdowns in separate tabs. When you look at outage minutes per customer that year (the “SAIDI With MED” column), you will see that those power providers that did worse than Palo Alto tend to be investor-owned or in rural mountainous areas. The table below shows how Palo Alto’s outage-minutes compares with that of other public utilities that report data using the same standard as Palo Alto.


Reliability data for public power providers in CA that report IEEE-standard outage information, from 2019. Source: Energy Information Administration

Just three months into 2021, Palo Alto already has over 40% of the total outage-minutes it had in 2019. Not a great start to the year.

What bugs me about Palo Alto’s outages, though, isn’t so much the outages themselves. Most of us acknowledge that we should be able to handle an outage or two a year of a few hours. (If you don’t plug your modem and router into an uninterruptible power supply, consider doing that!) I have no problem electrifying my house with this level of reliability. In my experience, outages lasting more than 4-5 hours are rare, and those lasting 8+ hours are exceedingly rare. The city is making plans for a redundant transmission line in a new corridor, so a repeat of 2010’s widespread day-long outage caused by a tragic plane crash that took down a set of critical power lines is much less likely to happen.

So I find the outages to be tolerable. What I find intolerable is Palo Alto’s lack of transparency about them. The investor-owned utilities all provide a reliability report each year with historical trends, information about the largest outages, and an analysis of some of the problems. Other utilities (e.g., the City of Anaheim) provide this information in their own format. But Palo Alto has nothing. (1) I have inquired several times over the past two years for information about outages. Our normally helpful utility has been distinctly unhelpful in this regard. I asked our Utilities Advisory Commission as well, and no one responded except for one commissioner who wanted to know what I learned.

How can this be? Electricity reliability is pretty important, and getting more important as we adopt more electric appliances. We are either in the dark about the utility’s performance, which would be a problem, or we are not in the dark but choosing to keep this information confidential, which I also consider to be a big problem. How will the utility build the trust it needs to encourage electrification?

I love the post that Diana Diamond wrote about her recent experience during last week’s outage in a local restaurant. We should all handle outages with such grace and community spirit. But our utility should not rely on our grace. Our utility should treat the reliability of our electricity system with the importance it deserves and provide annual updates for us on performance and mitigation. The utility needs to build trust with the community to achieve some of its goals in the coming years, and there can be no trust without transparency.

Notes and References
0. Update 9/21/2021. Tentative metrics for 2020 are shown below, which was a much better year outage-wise. I expect 2021 to be worse again.


Reliability data for public power providers in CA that report IEEE-standard outage information, from 2020. Source: Energy Information Administration

1. Palo Alto is not alone in this. I couldn’t find anything for the important Sacramento Municipal Utility District either. The largest municipal power provider in the state, Los Angeles Department of Power and Water, at least has something, but imo it’s inadequate.

2. If you aren’t sure what the different reliability acronyms mean (SAIFI, SAIDI, etc), you can read the bottom row in the spreadsheet, look at this document, or watch this video.

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Comments

 +   25 people like this
Posted by PA Community Advocate, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Apr 4, 2021 at 7:30 am

PA Community Advocate is a registered user.

Message from Palo Alto Utilities to me during a recent outage: “Please recognize the privilege you have by living here. If you have ever traveled to a third world country you will understand how fortunate you are to have access to this power & drinkable water rights" I'm from a third world country and it's not a “privilege" to live in Palo Alto. Our family worked hard to make it happen.


 +   7 people like this
Posted by Bystander, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Apr 4, 2021 at 8:01 am

Bystander is a registered user.

Thank you so much for this blog. I have been asking questions both as comments here and also with utilities when our power has been restored after an outage. Any outage can be a nuisance (cake baking in the oven at the time of the outage and oven goes out half way through baking time), or fairly serious, losing power at homework time when the house plunges in darkness when everyone needs power for homework, dinner and bedtime. As for a small business, well it costs them money. If it lasts too long things such as food wastage come into effect. Our utilities fail much too often. We were visiting family a couple of years ago when their power failed. For several hours the power was weak, but still there was enough power for lights and the refrigerator to hum although heating was out. After a couple of hours, the power went out for about 10 minutes completely then returned at full strength as obviously something had been switched. We were told that losing power was very rare and unusual, but at least things were not completely out. Being told that this latest outage in Palo Alto was a substation problem is not good enough. Was this a software problem, a hardware problem, a human error problem, or something else? When power is unreliable and the utilities are vague, we have to know more than they tell us. Thank you for this blog.


 +   10 people like this
Posted by em.a18, a resident of College Terrace,
on Apr 4, 2021 at 9:15 am

em.a18 is a registered user.

Nice analysis. Thank you for assembling this information. Palo Alto Utilities, please respond and do better!!!


 +   1 person likes this
Posted by Larry Patterson, a resident of another community,
on Apr 4, 2021 at 10:07 am

Larry Patterson is a registered user.

#"Message from Palo Alto Utilities to me during a recent outage: “Please recognize the privilege you have by living here. If you have ever traveled to a third world country you will understand how fortunate you are to have access to this power & drinkable water rights" The City of Palo Alto is simply advising its residents to count their blessings? Then again, the city may have a point if you have ever ventured into various countries that former President Trump assigned a disparaging term to.


 +   16 people like this
Posted by PA Community Advocate, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Apr 4, 2021 at 10:33 am

PA Community Advocate is a registered user.

It shouldn't be hard to understand why it's degrading for people with ties to third world countries to see “official" messages like that from Palo Alto Utilities. They're a loosely regulated monopoly operating at a wild surplus (i.e. overcharging ALL of us). At least treat residents with respect and detail the problem as the community member above noted.


 +   10 people like this
Posted by OldPA Resident, a resident of Old Palo Alto,
on Apr 4, 2021 at 11:49 am

OldPA Resident is a registered user.

While improving reliability of electricity supply is hard, improving communication with customers should be easy. Palo Utilities should solve that problem first. Good communications with customers goes a long way to mitigating the very bad feelings people have when their complaints are ignored and they are literally and figuratively kept in the dark. It's good to hear that the redundant 115-kV line is being planned. Considering the need for redundancy became obvious in 2010 when the airplane crashed into the main feeder line near Palo Alto Airport, the report linked to in the article mentions that the soonest the redundant would be in operation will be 2026. And this is not guaranteed. The project is still in the study stage and may never happen. The City should give this important infrastructure project a high priority. Waiting 16 years or more is too long.


 +   14 people like this
Posted by Online Name, a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland,
on Apr 4, 2021 at 5:50 pm

Online Name is a registered user.

This is the same type of arrogance the PAU and the City Attorney are showing by the failure to notify us how to apply for the refunds due us from the successful Miriam Green class action suit for the utilities practice of "over-charging" us to siphon the money from our pockets into the General Fund. To date, only one person I know has gotten the notice. Also to date, the process of the PAU overcharges of $20,000,000 a year continues and has gone on for about 5 years. That money is significant. I hope PAU will be paying us interest on the $12,000,000 already awarded by the judge and still due us.


 +   1 person likes this
Posted by David Coale, a resident of Barron Park,
on Apr 4, 2021 at 6:26 pm

David Coale is a registered user.

Hi Sherry, Thanks again for a good blog posting. I do like Diana Diamond's posting. This is the best way to get by a power outage as most of them are not too long. On the second feeder line into Palo Alto, I wonder if the money would be better spent on up grading the local distribution system as that is where most of the problems seem to be and not in a one-off freak event. A second feeder line would probably not do any good in a major earthquake anyway, which is more likely then another plane crash.


 +   1 person likes this
Posted by Bystander, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Apr 4, 2021 at 10:17 pm

Bystander is a registered user.

Sunday evening (Easter), another outage.


 +   1 person likes this
Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Apr 4, 2021 at 10:39 pm

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

Indeedy...


 +   5 people like this
Posted by Local Resident, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis,
on Apr 5, 2021 at 9:35 pm

Local Resident is a registered user.

Sherry, great blog post! I totally agree that the Utility Commission should provide an annual reliability report and work to improve availability. I wasn't aware they had brought the second feeder line to council so found that very informative. [portion removed]


 +   4 people like this
Posted by Bystander, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Apr 6, 2021 at 4:32 pm

Bystander is a registered user.

The Easter outage, following 8 days after the previous outage, has not been reported on by the PA Weekly. Two outages, one on a major holiday and one on a Saturday, so close together is just not acceptable to me. On a busy weekday with commuters driving home, school in session, and residents working from home, both of these would have been much more of an impact. I can't understand why we are not demanding more information about why these outages are not more fully reported and prevented.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Jocelyn Dong, editor of the Palo Alto Weekly,
on Apr 6, 2021 at 5:23 pm

Jocelyn Dong is a registered user.

Hi Bystander. Thanks for your comment. I'd like to point out that the Palo Alto Weekly reported on the Easter power outage, including the explanation given by the city. The following information was published in our daily Express e-newsletter on Monday morning and on our Facebook page. We also posted a slide about the outage on the home page of PaloAltoOnline.com. About 600 Palo Alto Utilities customers lost power on Sunday night due to an outage around the Crescent Park neighborhood. It was reported on social media around 9 p.m. and caused by a blown transformer in the area of Center Drive and Forest Avenue, according to Utilities spokesperson Catherine Elvert. Most customers received power back by 11 p.m. Sunday and 25 customers had service back at about 4:30 a.m. Monday. The transformer failure was "likely due to a failed piece of equipment within the transformer," according to Palo Alto Utilities.


 +   6 people like this
Posted by Ed Shikada, a resident of Downtown North,
on Apr 6, 2021 at 6:53 pm

Ed Shikada is a registered user.

Hello Sherry, and thank you for your column and analysis. #PA Community Advocate, please email me at [email protected] with specifics on your interaction with utilities so that we can follow-up.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Bystander, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Apr 7, 2021 at 10:08 am

Bystander is a registered user.

@Jocelyn Dong Thank you for getting back to me with the full details. In my defence, I would say that I usually go to the website for my news, not Facebook or the Express as I don't need to know the news quickly. I also did not understand the "slide" being posted as I could find no article so not sure what that was. Perhaps I am just old fashioned.


 +   8 people like this
Posted by peppered, a resident of Community Center,
on Apr 7, 2021 at 10:36 am

peppered is a registered user.

The utilities department is a major ripoff. CPAU transfers funds (read: profits) to the city's general fund every year. That is a violation of state law. To say that CPAU has a checkered past is like saying that there was a little skirmish in Europe in the early 40s. Also, CPAU routinely leases it's assets to the city. Weird, huh? Web Link Web Link They're a major scam, mismanaged and shameless.


 +   9 people like this
Posted by peppered, a resident of Community Center,
on Apr 7, 2021 at 10:42 am

peppered is a registered user.

@Larry Patterson It's not the CPAU's job to tell residents how fortunate (or unfortunate they are) to live here. We pay CPAU to do a job. They are accountable to us for substandard service. Your comment seems to suggest that the CPAU staffers response was acceptable. Let's be clear: it is not.


 +   5 people like this
Posted by BobH, a resident of Palo Verde,
on Apr 7, 2021 at 10:42 am

BobH is a registered user.

Good article. This is especially ironic given the Council's push for all electric no gas. This won't work unless the grid is upgraded and becomes more reliable. Reading the linked report, from the executive summary: "After many years of negotiations with Stanford, SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory (SLAC), and the Department of Energy (DOE) for a 60 kilovolt (kV) electric transmission line interconnection between the 230kV corridor serving SLAC along the western side of Palo Alto and the 115kV corridor serving the City in eastern Palo Alto, the parties have been unable to reach agreement. Moving forward, the City will focus on a new 115kV electric transmission line between the City and PG&E from the southeast corridor (the Project)." Doesn't see like this is going to happen anytime soon. It's also putting more power resources in the place that is likely to flood due to rising levels of water in the bay. I think the city would be better off with install a lot more solar and local storage in the city, instead of becoming more dependent on PG&E.


 +   3 people like this
Posted by Duveneck, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis,
on Apr 7, 2021 at 12:06 pm

Duveneck is a registered user.

Reliable electricity delivery is always extremely important. How is the Palo Alto Utilities department planning to handle the California-mandated annual increases to Palo Alto's housing inventory once that ruling takes effect?


 +   9 people like this
Posted by Online Name, a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland,
on Apr 7, 2021 at 12:09 pm

Online Name is a registered user.

Why is the City spending OUR money to appeal the court decision re $12,000,000 in illegal overcharges to fund their lucrative salaries, the consultant gravy train and all the police misconduct lawsuits! They also have another class action lawsuit against them for illegally adding fees to our landline phone bills. The City Attorney is supposed to be serving US, the taxpayers, not stalling on our refunds and then charging us for the appeals! Outrageous. Talk about adding insult to injury when CPAUR has been "overcharging" us $20,000,000 a year for the last few years and when they have to keep settling lawsuits again the police. Where's the transparency and accountability?? Also the move toward all electric is both impractical as we've seen from the repeated power outages but also FOUR times as expensive as the more reliable natural gas. Look what happened to the state when they rushed to decommission the gas plants to meet some nebulous target WITHOUT adequately predicting demand!


 +   4 people like this
Posted by peppered, a resident of Community Center,
on Apr 8, 2021 at 7:03 am

peppered is a registered user.

Next time a CPAU staffer tells someone to be grateful that you're living in such a wonderful place vs. a place with poorer electric supply, let's suggest that they go there and "improve" their electric supply the same way they did ours.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Native to the BAY, a resident of Old Palo Alto,
on Apr 8, 2021 at 10:29 am

Native to the BAY is a registered user.

Electronic car lifts are a very bad invention. Once the grid goes down, good luck. These are for very long term auto storage, not residential, family parking.I am pleading with planning do not install the mechanical all electric lifts for overly burdened family housing . These lifts are unsafe for children, break down frequently, rely on the grid, not emergency back-up., fit European size cars, take six months to get parts from Germany. The Klaus co is located in Walnut Creek.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Apr 8, 2021 at 11:36 am

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

I appreciate these interesting comments, thank you!

@David, while more of the outages are due to the distribution network, they are also more easily fixed. I think the city is right to focus on the transmission line because an outage there can be more widespread and long-lasting and so have more significant impacts. I'm sure there will be tradeoffs with the cost, so we'll have to see how it goes. I wonder, out of curiosity, how many of the outages would be addressed if we had more underground lines. The city has considered that as a "carrot" for electrifying, which is interesting.

@Online, I received a notice. Maybe people just don't remember it. I think the lawsuit is still being appealed by both sides. Here is a pointer to the case.

@BobH: You say that electrification won't work unless the grid is more reliable. Yet there are a number of all-electric houses already in Palo Alto, and I wouldn't hesitate to electrify my house with a few hours' worth of outages each year. Can you clarify what you are most worried about? I'd love to better understand because I've heard this before but don't really understand the concern, at least from a residential point of view.

Your point about building out microgrids is interesting, and something that San Mateo County, for example, is looking at. I think they are pretty expensive (storage) and make the most sense for places where power shutoffs are happening (via PGE). VMWare is trying something, but I don't know much about it or what the status is.

@Native: I agree that people need to consider that outages will happen when installing those lifts. I hope that at some point in the next few years it will not be hard to use an EV battery to supply power to these when the grid is down.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Native to the BAY, a resident of Old Palo Alto,
on Apr 8, 2021 at 12:57 pm

Native to the BAY is a registered user.

@Sherry " The lifts are engineered for long term parking not flexible for residential parking. Again. They are unsafe and are dumb solution for checking a box for housing / residential parking. When they break residents are unable to get out or in. Kids can't get to their soccer games, their schools, worker have to call in late or “sick". PAUSD does not excuse an absence because a residents parking lift went down. Klaus does not reimburse for other transit, like taking an UBER to get to a Little League game or a job . Complex does not reimburse for other transit. Residents pay the ultimate price, kids suffer, the community suffers. Very unwise. Don't be fooled by this as a residential parking.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Native to the BAY, a resident of Old Palo Alto,
on Apr 8, 2021 at 1:03 pm

Native to the BAY is a registered user.

As well in case of fire/earthquake these lifts offer negative protection. If broken and medical non-life life threatening emergency can't get out to get to hospital. Have to rely on city emergency services. In case of earthquake city 911 will be flooded by calls " good luck!


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Seer, a resident of Greendell/Walnut Grove,
on Apr 8, 2021 at 4:07 pm

Seer is a registered user.

And hence, as I put in an all electric home, we're backing it up with Solar power plus a couple of PowerWalls. Outages will be a thing of my past, and then, in true American tradition, I will thereafter vote against any improvements to the grid or electrical infrastructure for the unwashed masses as it no longer benefits me me me. Point 2: Electric car lifts ... ??? like half of the parking in NYC now? I don't get the anxiety, and of course "the kids" are always in imminent danger.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Native to the BAY, a resident of Old Palo Alto,
on Apr 8, 2021 at 6:09 pm

Native to the BAY is a registered user.

@Seer. Re electric grid and automated auto lifts.When it's convenient compare stupid maneuvers like robotic idiotic lifts to big city solutions like NYC or Tokyo. But when it comes to R1 Zoning it's all the sudden about small town charm, character and a loss of their street parking for the 3-5 cars average, per single family home.The lift installed at Mayfield was ill conceived and the residents were given zero awareness or understanding of where this space would be when promised one space per unit when leasing up 6months prior to moving in to the complex. Stanford / Related should be sued for it's negligence in informing the lessee's . There are 15o residents. 195 puzzling lift spaces, yet about 8 cars sit in there that are being stored long term basis. Study NYC's lift solutions. I almost bet they are attended by humans parking valet people, 24/7. Aside from the sheer fact that personal auto ownership within the city is very low for the commoners. And germany is a lot closer to NYC than PA. Germany id where replacements parts are shipped from. Takes up to six months. Mayfield Place has 1000's of wasted space better suited for retail, offices or better, more residential apartments. Biggest wast if time, money and a headache to deal when babies are crying, transferring groceries with toddlers, strollers, school kids, back packs, sports equipment. Not evenly remotely akin to a residential parking space necessary . Here's an idea how about the new safety building put one in for staff and visitor parking? I invite any city council member or planning commissioner to borrow my assigned space for one week. Lets see how they adapt to this $2million dollar car park puzzle!!


 +   4 people like this
Posted by Online Name, a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland,
on Apr 9, 2021 at 12:46 pm

Online Name is a registered user.

"@Online, I received a notice. Maybe people just don't remember it. I think the lawsuit is still being appealed by both sides. Here is a pointer to the case." It's my understanding that it's only the city that's appealing, not the plaintiff or her lawyers as per the PADP's coverage and the email I got from the city's lawyers. 2 other things: 1) does the city compensate us for ruined food after extended outages? 2) It defends its poor customer service response due to "demands" on its systems when 7,000 call in. Then how can they imagine they'll cope with demands from a new fiber-to-the-home service? Are they planning to staff up to compete with AT&T?? Delusional!


 +   1 person likes this
Posted by Bystander, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Apr 14, 2021 at 11:45 am

Bystander is a registered user.

Last night another outage. These are now occurring on average once a week. Perhaps you can do some digging and find out what is going on with our utilities I know from reading Nextdoor and also the comments below the article, that people are getting angry about this. We are expected to just suck it up. Well, when it starts costing us money, from spoilt food, lost worktime, lost ability to attend important meetings on zoom, and things like stairlifts for the elderly or garage doors/security gates not working, this is more than just a passing inconvenience. Accepting poor power supply is what people in third world countries expect. We are not a third world country and we expect our utilities to deliver. We are the place where all these high tech things are designed for use all over the world. It is beyond credibility that our own City can't use more technology to give us a service that is world class.


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