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By Sherry Listgarten

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.

Current Climate Data (February 2021)
Global impacts, US impacts, CO2 metric, Climate dashboard (updated annually)

For your climate-related news item this week, here is a depressing graph shared by Stanford's Michael Wara, who has studied wildfires and their relationship to climate change.

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