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Palo Alto has studied extra powerlines, costs

Utility officials consider new transformer, underground lines to make city's system more reliable

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Palo Alto officials will consider upgrading the city's transmission lines and seek new power sources after a fatal plane crash damaged three transmission lines bringing electricity to the city -- leaving residents and businesses without power for most of Wednesday.

The plane, a twin-engine Cessna that carried three Tesla employees, hit a transmission line and tower near Beech Street in East Palo Alto and damaged two 115 kilovolt lines that were bring electricity to the city from the Ravenswood substation, located across the Dumbarton Bridge. Both lines were damaged when the plane crashed into the transmission tower shortly before 8 a.m.

Under normal circumstances, the city would still receive power from a third transmission line, which stretched between wooden poles about 30 feet away from the damaged PG&E tower. But the third line, which carries power from the Cooley Landing substation in East Palo Alto, faltered after it was hit with a piece of debris, according to Tomm Marshall, assistant director of the city's Utilities Department.

Palo Alto utility officials called Wednesday's accident "the perfect storm" when it came to disrupting the city's power supply. All 28,000 or so Palo Alto customers lost power and didn't get it back until about 6 p.m.

Utility officials told the Weekly that the problem wasn't a shortage of transmission lines. The Cooley line takes a different route than the two Ravenswood lines, said Russ Kamiyama, who manages the city's electric operations. The problem is that all three lines were sharing the same corridor near the PG&E transmission tower. So when the plane crash damaged the infrastructure along the corridor, all three lines were damaged.

"The reason it took so long to restore power is because the accident happened at this point in the corridor," Kamiyama said.

PG&E officials repaired the Cooley line by about 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, restoring power to the entire city. The company was completing its repairs on the other two lines Thursday, Marshall said.

Marshall called Wednesday's plane crash a "freak accident" and said it's extremely unlikely for all three lines to be affected by the same event, particularly given the separation between the Ravenswood lines and the Cooley line.

Still, he said the department plans to consider possible upgrades and changes to the city's transmission system.

The Utilities Department has conducted at least two studies in the last few years examining major changes to the transmission lines, Marshall said.

One study explored installing a new transformer at Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC) in Menlo Park and transmitting power from SLAC to the Stanford Research Park in Palo Alto.

Marshall said the new transformer would create another redundancy in the city's power system and allow the city to transfer energy to a different parts of Palo Alto. But the project would cost about $45 million and would require the city to obtain permission from the U.S. Department of Energy, which would operate the new transformer.

So far, the Department of Energy has not been supportive the city's plan. But Marshall said the city plans to continue its discussions with federal officials.

"The plan is still there -- it hasn't been abandoned," Marshall said.

The department has also considered converting the city's existing 115kV lines to 230kV lines -- a conversion that Marshall said would save the city about $1 million a year. Palo Alto currently has to pay a fee to PG&E for using power lines with less than 230kV -- a fee that would no longer be charged if the conversion is made. The new lines would be installed underground, where they would be less exposed, Marshall said.

The conversion to 230kV lines would cost the Utilities Department about $200 million, but would also bring in long-term savings and improve the reliability of the city's power system, Marshall said.

"There are significant savings that we can make with a 230kV connection," Marshall said. "We're going to go back and consider the economical ways that this could be done."

While some residents voiced frustration about the extended blackout, Palo Alto utility officials said there was little they could have done to speed up the process of restoring power given that the tower and the lines are operated by PG&E.

But Marshall and Kamiyama both said PG&E responded quickly, given the magnitude of the damage and the amount of debris. Marshall noted that the company had to bring in cranes and other heavy equipment to remove debris from the crash site.

"From my point of view, I think they responded very quickly," Marshall said. "We were very lucky that they had local crews here who were able to respond immediately."

Related stories:

Fatal plane crash causes major power outage

Economic impact of power outage not yet known

Palo Alto power outage 'crippling' to some stores

Relief greets return of power to Palo Alto

Traffic safety was city's big concern during outage

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Like this comment
Posted by Walter_E_Wallis
a resident of Midtown
on Feb 19, 2010 at 3:56 am

Walter_E_Wallis is a registered user.

Perhaps some of the money wasted on that stupid 'pay even if the wind don't blow pinwheel' contract

Like this comment
Posted by a resident
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Feb 19, 2010 at 8:43 am

Everyone gripes about PG&E how bad they are, how slow they are, how
non customer friendly they are, but you know what..they do the best they can on short notice..maybe if customers better understood what is involved in restoring power and stop whinning about themselves and how they can't watch the qvc channel or watch their soaps. in bad
weather do they go out & offer the linemen food,water, refreshments,
OF COURSE NOT, they may get wet..put a cork in it people !! a grateful epa resident..

Like this comment
Posted by Anon.
a resident of Crescent Park
on Feb 19, 2010 at 10:35 am

Just because in an emergency when the whole world is watching they do a good job does not reflect on the day to day messes that PG&E create. I don't mean to bash PG&E, they did a wonderful job getting the power up ... I think. I don't know what was involved, they certainly did not fix the tower, so perhaps they just re-routed some connections. In any case I am glad we were not without power for days.

I do mean to "criticize" those who take a one-off situation and attempt to spin it into more than it is ... "resident".

Like this comment
Posted by PolicySage
a resident of Barron Park
on Feb 19, 2010 at 11:27 am

The basic problem is that elected officials today are unwilling to support vitally-needed infrastructure upgrading because the costs are now, and the advantages to the public come only after they have left office.

Palo Alto City Council members are only a gnat's wing in the larger picture -- at least three trillion dollars in deferred infrastructure upgrading in the U.S. is pushing us more and more behind the rest of the developed (and developing) world every day.

Like this comment
Posted by Adrianus_Schrauwen
a resident of Midtown
on Feb 19, 2010 at 11:34 am

And... what happened to the "green power" a lot of people paying for, or did it disappear with the downed PG&E tower also...?

Like this comment
Posted by Morris
a resident of Barron Park
on Feb 19, 2010 at 12:11 pm

> at least three trillion dollars in deferred infrastructure
> upgrading in the U.S.

While no doubt true, the US how has a debt almost equal to its GDP ($14T), a population that has a debt-to-asset ratio that is probably somewhere around 120%, and the US government has real and likely-to-have-to-assume financial obligations of $124T.

Any idea where this $3T is going to come from?

Like this comment
Posted by Walter_E_Wallis
a resident of Midtown
on Feb 19, 2010 at 1:35 pm

Walter_E_Wallis is a registered user.

That 3 T and more might just equal the sum spent for silly green schemes and edifices. That suspension bridge over a mud flat, for instance, 20 times the cost of a functional replacement.
Our government these past few decades has been akin to the kid, sent to the store with a shopping list , told he can buy candy with the change, hits the candy counter first, then lacks money to buy the groceries.
Hi, Andy!

Like this comment
Posted by don
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Feb 19, 2010 at 1:41 pm

PolicySage. You have so clearly described the political ramble. Our own Council is a good example - they spend money on the Senior Games or the Color of Palo Alto, etc., etc., without meeting their responsibility to consider long term needs.

But the average citizen is as much to blame. They okay a bond to pay for upgrading the library system, but won't support the need for a Public Safety Bldg. Some describe it as "gold plated" without having read the plans or understanding the real need. Take a tour of the present City Hall facility to appreciate the 3rd grade, cramped quarters the police work in.

When the big one hits, we won't have an emergency Operations Center nor much police equipment to meet the city needs. It will all be buried under the present City Hall. If you were discommoded with the recent 10 hour electrical outage, wait until an earthquake hits. Expect communications to be out a week or more, and there'll be no way to express your unhappiness.

Like this comment
Posted by Jenny
a resident of South of Midtown
on Feb 19, 2010 at 2:10 pm

$200 Million for an additional 230 V line into Palo Alto. Forget it, that's far too much money, our electricity bills would go through the roof. Yes, this was a freak accident lets hope if it happens again debris won't accidentally hit the spare electrical utility line located some distance away from the main lines!!

Like this comment
Posted by Donna
a resident of another community
on Feb 19, 2010 at 8:35 pm

Let's make sure a plane crash with the transfer tower never happens again! The entire system of bringing power to East Palo Alto, Palo Alto and nearby communities must be re-designed and upgraded for safety and reliability! Let us not forget this great trajedy, the loss of some of earth's brightest and honorable men. THE TRANSFER TOWER MUST BE REMOVED AND POWER RE-ROUTED AS A TRIBUTE TO THE THREE TESLA ENGINEERS!

Like this comment
Posted by Retired Staffer
a resident of another community
on Feb 19, 2010 at 9:35 pm

How "freak" was this accident? A very similar event occured about 60 years ago. That's twice within 100 years--the benchmark period for disaster planning.

Like this comment
Posted by My Hamster is Runing my Generator
a resident of Palo Verde
on Feb 19, 2010 at 11:44 pm

$45 million? $200 million?! Give me a break. If these numbers are any where near real, I'll suffer a twice every 60-year outage.

Like this comment
Posted by Retired Staffer
a resident of another community
on Feb 20, 2010 at 12:29 pm

Hamster: Please--we're talking about a potential aviation disaster here, not a visual enhancement program like the California Avenue tree planting.

Like this comment
Posted by happy friday
a resident of Palo Verde
on Feb 20, 2010 at 8:18 pm

$200 M upfront cost to save $1M per year??? No one in their right mind would sign up for this. And it is not a question of averting an aviation disaster...Wednesday's plane was so low and far off course that crash was imminent whether or not there were power lines present.

I will happily endure a 10 hour blackout once every decade or so in exchange for funneling scarce investment dollars toward things that make a real tangible benefit to the citizens of PA. And yes, even things like libraries, schools, police, trees, road repairs, even summer concerts make life more pleasant in our town.

Like this comment
Posted by SteveU
a resident of Barron Park
on Feb 21, 2010 at 12:16 pm

SteveU is a registered user.

Everyone is missing a major point.:
We have a single path of failure here.
ANY TOWER ACROSS THE BAY, brings PA to it's knees.
I can't believe to ones in the Bay, are easy or as fast to repair as the last one was.
It is long past time for some redundancy.
Earthquake, Big Storm, Ship or Plane and we have a big problem.

Like this comment
Posted by Walter_E_Wallis
a resident of Midtown
on Feb 21, 2010 at 6:35 pm

Walter_E_Wallis is a registered user.

Good point, SteveU. Frisco just celebrated the shutdown of the last power plant on the peninsula; much of our power comes from out of state.
Domestic Terrorists have demonstrated the vulnerability of our transmission systems. There is no such thing as lossless transmission. ideally we should have at least one base load power plant in each population center, with transmison lines used to allow mutual aid.

Like this comment
Posted by Sharon
a resident of Midtown
on Feb 21, 2010 at 7:29 pm

We need a power station in PA-- natural gas for the short term and nuclear for the longer term.
The nuclear generators on our aircraft carriers and submarines have a great safety record.

Solar, wind, tide, hamsters etc are vanity adjuncts.

We need a reliable 24/7 main source.

Like this comment
Posted by Anon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 22, 2010 at 8:29 am

Is it just me, or did Sharon just suggest a nuclear power plant in PA?

Good one Sharon. That was my first really hardy laugh today.

I can just picture Homer Simpson type towers rising above the hill lines.

Like this comment
Posted by Carlito
a resident of Palo Verde
on Feb 22, 2010 at 10:44 am

What happened to Green Energy?
Green Energy= Make a buck out of peoples fear and feeling guilty about their "carbon footprint", and their political correctness that comes with it. A pipe dream for the idealist.
Nuclear Energy= Safer than ever and cheap.
Natural Gas= Safer and really cheap and the US has one of the biggest reserves in the world.

Do some unbiased research and decide.

Like this comment
Posted by Daniel
a resident of Midtown
on Feb 22, 2010 at 4:45 pm

The transmission lines that went down last week fed power to the West Bayshore sub station. There are other lines that used to feed the substation but have been cut and terminated just outside the substations fence. These other lines are on towers in the backyards of homes on Maddux Dr.The lines used to feed the substation but for some reason do not anymore. These lines should be used for back up just in case this happens again. Any comment welcome.

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