Palo Alto Weekly

News - March 5, 2010

News Digest

Sunday blackout due to faulty transformer

A four-hour power outage that caused blackouts and brownouts in large areas of Palo Alto was caused by a faulty transformer that apparently caused an old splice in a high-voltage wire to fail, city officials concluded this week.

Power failed about 8:30 p.m. Sunday and surged back to Palo Alto residents starting about 12:30 to 12:45 a.m., turning on lights and televisions — sometimes after residents had gone to bed.

Palo Alto utilities workers finished splicing a downed powerline moments before midnight.

Substantial portions of Palo Alto suffered electrical power brownouts or blackouts Sunday night, but no city announcement was made of the outage.

The city's dispatch center referred to a number for Light & Power, but that line was either busy or looped back to a dispatch center recording that said only that there was a power outage and no estimate of when power would be restored.

Streetlights and commercial buildings in Midtown and along Oregon Expressway were still on at about 10 p.m.

But residents posted their own bulletins about what areas were affected in the Town Square forum, and one resident, technical journalist Eric Savitz, did his own investigation when he lost power about 8:30 p.m.

Savitz, who lives in Palo Alto's Midtown region, said he set out and found a fire truck at Colorado Avenue and Greer Road under a powerline that had fallen from a pole and was still crackling sparks in a tree.

"Here we go again," he began his blog, referring to a Feb. 17 10-hour outage caused by a plane hitting a main power feed to the city and crashing into an East Palo Alto neighborhood, killing all three people in the plane.

"For reasons unknown, the wire seems to have come uncoupled from a utility pole, and fallen into a couple of trees, where as of a few minutes ago it was still sparking and causing smoking in several large trees.

"The incident started around 8:30 or so with a power brownout; but in the last 15 minutes, we lost all remaining power, and all is dark. (I'm online via a Verizon 3G wireless card and my laptop battery.)"

He said the downed line is just a few blocks from his house. He said a Fire Department officer at the scene said a Utilities Department crew had been called. Savitz said that as of 9 p.m. the fireman said it could take an hour for the crew to show up and start repairs.

There was no apparent reason for the line to break given the calm, dry weather, Savitz said.

"For now, time to break out the candles," he concluded.

Utilities Director Valerie Fong Tuesday apologized for the lack of information and said she would be calling in a backup public information officer to handle public announcements.

City wins charging station funds

Palo Alto has won a $12,000 grant from the Bay Area Air Quality Management District to help fund six new electric-car charging stations in town, the district has announced.

The charging stations will be installed in the City Hall parking garage as part of a pilot program to "understand the demand for electric cars" in Palo Alto, city sustainability official Debra van Duynhoven said.

Better Place, a Palo-Alto-based electric-car services company, also received a grant, as did Santa Clara, San Francisco, Alameda and Sonoma counties and the city of Santa Rosa, according to a press release from the district.

"We really want to make it easier for the public to switch to clean electric vehicles, and charging stations will make it easier," Bay Area Air Quality Management District representative Jennifer Jones said.

The $428,240 in grants will fund 226 charging stations. The district is still accepting grant applications and will likely award another $1.5 million before the program, which began in October, ends, Jones said.

It will take more than the district's $12,000 to fully fund Palo Alto's plan to install charging stations. The city has also applied for $35,000 from the California Energy Commission, Karl van Orsdol, the city's energy risk manager, said. Van Orsdol said the city could learn the results of that grant application by April.

Palo Alto applied for the California Energy Commission grant as part of a joint effort with 15 other cities and counties to install 425 charging stations across the Peninsula. Van Orsdol said that the districts hope to create an "EV (electric vehicle) corridor" in which electric-car owners can travel.

The charging stations will also help determine "the impact of electric vehicles on the city's electricity distribution system," van Orsdol said. The city will study how often and at what times the stations are used, how much the electricity will cost and how the stations would be affected by potential terrorist attack.

The stations will be open to the public but could require a usage fee, van Orsdol said.

Paly students head to Science Bowl

Five Palo Alto High School students will fly to Washington, D.C., next month to compete in the national championships of the Science Bowl, a Jeopardy-style academic competition sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy.

The students — Kevin Hu, Albert Lin, Rui Shu, Lynnelle Ye and Michael Yuan — claimed the Bay Area Science Bowl title last Saturday, beating out 23 teams from 18 high schools to win the all-expense-paid trip.

In the Washington, D.C., competition April 29 to May 4, the Paly students will face off against 67 other high school teams from across the country.

The Paly Science Olympiad, known as SciOly, is a club of about 30 students who participate in various science competitions, mainly focused around the Science Olympiad, a nonprofit organization that organizes national K-12 science tournaments and noncompetitive events.

The Science Bowl that the students will attend in Washington is a separate, government-sponsored competition.

The Science Bowl tests students' knowledge in all areas of science, according to the DOE website.

"High school and middle school students are quizzed in a fast-paced, question-and-answer format similar to Jeopardy.

"Competing teams from diverse backgrounds are comprised of four students, one alternate, and a teacher who serves as advisor and coach."

Last weekend's Bay Area Science Bowl was held at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory.

Paly's top team went undefeated in an all-day double elimination tournament, Leonard said, winning "in dramatic fashion, besting a tough (team from Harker School in San Jose) in the final match by a score of 96 to 84."

Paly's second team "also represented Paly well, going three for five in what was perhaps the toughest first-round bracket," Leonard said.

Paly's prize was a model klystron, a kind of vacuum tube, currently on display in the Paly Science Department lunchroom.

"Please disregard the 'radiation area' warning on the trophy," Leonard said. "It is neither radioactive nor functional."

Stiffer fines proposed for cell-phone violators

State Sen. Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto) new "distracted-driving" bill would increase penalties for improper cell-phone use and extend the hands-free, no-texting laws to bicyclists.

Senate Bill 1475 would increase penalties from Simitian's first hands-free law from $20 to $50, and for a subsequent offense from $50 to $100. It would increase the fine for texting while driving from $20 to $100. A violation would also add a point to the driver's record.

A portion of the increased revenue would provide for a public-awareness program.

A twist to the new bill is that the existing hands-free and no-texting laws would apply to bicyclists as well as motorists.

Simitian said in a press release that there are definite links between cell-phone use and accidents, injuries and deaths, according to data from the California Highway Patrol.

"Early this year, the National Safety Council released a report indicating that 28 percent of automobile accidents in the United States involve talking or texting on a cell phone," Simitian said.

"And a nationwide study conducted in 2009 by AAA indicated that 97.7 percent of Americans believed texting or e-mailing while driving was a serious threat to their personal safety.

"The good news is that recently released collision and fatality data from the California Highway Patrol confirms that California's streets and highways are safer following the implementation of California's 'hands-free' cell-phone law," Simitian said.

CHP Capt. Avery Browne said anything that diverts a driver's attention from the roadway, even for two seconds, could result in a tragedy.

— Mike Lata

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