The blackout factor

PG&E's poor reliability record costs businesses millions
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This chart shows how customers of Pacific Gas and Electric Co. face far more power outages than customers of any of the public power agencies in the Bay Area

Noel Birbeck makes signs. In a low, nondescript building tucked into a south of Market side street, a printing machine spits out personal greetings and corporate messages in all colors, shapes, and sizes.

Until the power goes out.

"We print things that are up to 50 feet long," said Birbeck, the business manager of Budget Signs. "If the power goes out at foot 35, we have to start the printing process all over and throw out all that time and money that went into the initial printing."

And that, unfortunately, has been happening far too often. In fact, a Guardian review of available data shows that customers of Pacific Gas and Electric Co. lose power much more frequently than customers of municipally-owned and operated utilities.

That costs money and harms the local business climate.

"[Any disruption] is a huge deal," Birbeck said. "If we're in the middle of a deadline and a customer expects something at a certain time, that can cost Budget Signs a huge amount of money. No one is going to pay you for something that is only kinda done."

The last major outage cost Budget Signs more than $300 in employee and company time as Birbeck and her workers waited for the power to return. It's a manageable amount, but she insists she can't put a price on the inconvenience, the uncertainty, and the potential loss of business.

Reliable power is a basic requirement of most businesses. Restaurants and markets need refrigeration, factories need to power production lines, office buildings run large computing systems, retailers need to run cash registers, lights, and credit card machines. An unexpected power outage can cost San Francisco businesses thousands of dollars.

A 2001 study by the Electric Power Research Institute estimates the cost of power disruptions to California businesses is between $11.5 million and $17.8 million annually.

No utility can guarantee year-round power without disruptions, surges, brownouts, or severe weather-related outages. But reliability varies widely among California utilities.

PG&E breaks its service area into districts, and, according to reports it submits annually to the California Public Utilities Commission, San Francisco customers experienced an average of two hours of non-weather-related outages per year over the last six years. (Weather-related incidents are not reported at the district level.)

That's better than the three-hour average across PG&E's entire California service area. Still, PG&E customers in San Francisco lose power, on average, 2.5 times as often as customers of other Bay Area utilities.

The Palo Alto Utilities Department, Silicon Valley Power in Santa Clara, Alameda Municipal Power, and the Sacramento Municipal Utility District have dramatically better records, ranging from 82 minutes a year of outage time in Sacramento to only 16 minutes in Santa Clara — and these numbers include all weather-related events.

In other words, the municipal utilities deliver power more consistently and at considerably lower rates — even before factoring in PG&E's impending rate hike of 3.3 percent to 5.4 percent.

"We consider any widespread blackout a major event," said Larry Owens, division manager at Silicon Valley Power.

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