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Quake Response Shows Safety Improvements, PG&E Says

With California Gov. Jerry Brown on Tuesday requesting that the three-county South Napa earthquake area be designated as a disaster area by the Obama administration, officials for Pacific Gas and Electric Co. (PG&E) are calling the combination utility's coordinated quake response an indicator of how far it has come in improving its safety and emergency responsiveness.

As regulatory judges on Tuesday recommended $1.4 billion in penalties for PG&E's acknowledged safety failures in the past (see Daily GPI, Sept. 2), PG&E's senior director for natural gas system operations, Mel Christopher, told NGI on Wednesday that his company is "laser-focused on safety," and he contends that it showed in PG&E's response to the 6.0-magnitude quake Aug. 24 in Napa that impacted two neighboring counties: Sonoma and Solano.

Christopher said that through a combination of upgraded technology and equipment, along with a new 42,000-square-foot gas control center in San Ramon, CA, in the East San Francisco Bay area, PG&E was able to utilize all of these advancements to more quickly and efficiently mobilize its response team within a half-hour of the early morning quake.

"One of the things we have been pursuing is to be 'predictive and proactive,' and we were able to do that; it is critical that we be able to do this," Christopher said. "The technology we have now allowed us to facilitate a full response.

"We quickly could see in real time where the [customer] calls were coming from, where the largest shake areas were, and how that overlaid with our distribution pipelines, and where transmission lines were relative to faults; we could see all of that almost immediately."

As the clusters of customer calls were identified, so were the concentrations of reported gas leaks. Thus very early, PG&E's control center could begin resource planning to address those areas and leaks, Christopher said. He said the "visualization of real-time information" is a capability that the utility lacked prior to just the past year.

This technology allowed PG&E gas control people to look for major pipeline breaks on either the transmission or distribution systems. None occurred, but they would have been quickly identified if they had happened, Christopher said.

Hydraulic models were used to compare real-time data on how parts of the utility system were operating in and around the quake area with the models' data on how ideally they should be operating. If major differences were detected, PG&E would have an early indicator of areas on its system needing isolation.

"As a result, within 24 hours we had near total restoration, and we had the areas isolated that needed to be," Christopher said. "It was a pretty remarkable response."

On the ground, PG&E deployed an advanced pipeline leak-detection technology that it began testing after the September 2010 San Bruno pipeline explosion, called the Picarro Surveyor (see Daily GPI, Feb. 3, 2012). It was run throughout the quake-impacted area several times a day, Christopher said.

"We used the technology to really look hard for leaks and to help deploy resources in the impacted areas," Christopher said. "It is a very effective tool we didn't have for past quakes."

After safety was assured in the impacted areas and company people and equipment deployed, PG&E focused on community needs, promoting a voluntary safety check program that drew 5,000 requests in the week following the temblor. "If customers had concerns and wanted us to come to their homes or businesses, we did gas safety checks," he said. "We wanted people to feel confident that the system and their homes/businesses were safe."

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