PG&E's system fails -- again

Candlestick Park blackout tells us a lot about the power company's commitment to the city

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EDITORIAL There's no question that officials from Santa Clara — thrilled to have finalized financing for a new 49ers stadium — were taking full political advantage of the Dec. 19 blackouts at Candlestick Park. There's no question that the event Mayor Ed Lee called a "national embarrassment" helped guarantee that the team will leave San Francisco after one more season.

But this is about more than football — and the mayor and the supervisors ought to using this latest PG&E screw-up to take a serious look at the company's reliability and its impact on the city.

This is hardly the first embarrassing PG&E blackout in San Francisco. For the past few years, the private utility's aging infrastructure has been failing, leaving businesses and residents in the dark. And while PG&E officials are trying to blame the city for the latest snafu, everyone admits that the problem started when a PG&E power line snapped.

Snapping power lines are a dangerous prospect — in this case, nobody was hurt and the arcing electricity didn't start any fires. But that was largely a matter of luck — the jolt from the broken line lit up TV screens all over the country and if it had happened close to some flammable object (or, worse, some live person), the damage could have been serious.

As it was, millions of people watched San Francisco's football stadium go dark — twice. The electricians at Candlestick patched things together and the game went on, but the message was clear: PG&E can't be trusted to keep its equipment in safe, operating condition.

The city of San Bruno is still trying to recover from the natural gas explosion that killed eight people and leveled a neighborhood. And while local and state officials are giving increased scrutiny to PG&E's underground gas pipes, the electricity system isn't in much better shape.

Blackouts are more than an embarrassment — they cost the city and its businesses money. And, as the almost certain loss of the 49ers shows, unreliable infrastructure doesn't help the local business climate. As Santa Clara Mayor Jamie Matthews told the Bay Citizen: "The reason they moved to Santa Clara is the reliability of our services. We have reliability in our electricity system that is unparalleled."

One reason: Santa Clara has its own municipal power system. Rates are lower, blackouts are unheard of and the equipment is well maintained. Compare that to PG&E, where company executives diverted gas line maintenance money to pay themselves bonuses, and you see why San Francisco, which relies on the private monopoly, has a problem.

The supervisors ought to take this opportunity to hold hearings on the reliability of PG&E's electric and gas system in the city — looking not just at the Candlestick problem but at the maintenance records, the age of crucial equipment, the company's replacement plans and the economic impact of a shoddy electrical system. That should be part of Mayor Lee's investigation, too.

At some point, San Francisco residents are going to have to pay to rebuild this system. They can pay through higher PG&E rates when the utility finally gets around to it — or they can begin the process of creating a municipal utility, which can do the job right, bring down rates and improve the business climate that the mayor so loves to discuss.

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