Will PG&E Ever Catch a Break?

Power outages are never good, but when a customer loses power while entertaining 70,000 guests and a national television audience of more than 16.6 million viewers, it can be a utility’s nightmare. Pacific Gas and Electric Co. (PG&E) can attest to that. Minutes before the kickoff to Dec. 19’s “Monday Night Football” game between the San Francisco 49ers and the Pittsburgh Steelers, the stadium lost all power. Fans at Candlestick Park found themselves in the dark, and San Francisco, the stadium’s owner, quickly switched to backup generators. ESPN had to do the same to continue the broadcast. The kickoff was delayed about 20 minutes. Then the stadium lost power a second time early in the second quarter, delaying it another 15 minutes.

This bad press adds to PG&E’s woes. Its customers have complained about its smart meter program because of cost and billing inaccuracies, privacy and public health concerns. Complaints have been so prevalent that PG&E announced Dec. 19 that customers may opt out of its smart meter rollout and keep their old, mechanical meters. Other public relations problems were highlighted in December when California regulators levied their largest safety fine—$38 million—against PG&E for a 2008 pipeline explosion that killed a man in Rancho Cordova, Calif. A couple of days later, PG&E admitted liability for a September 2010 pipeline explosion in San Bruno, Calif., that killed eight people and injured 58 others.

Since the “Monday Night Football” mishap, several San Francisco media outlets have reported finger-pointing between the San Francisco mayor and PG&E CEO Anthony Earley, who has been with the company about four months. PG&E was responsible for the first outage, Earley said, caused when a splice failure occurred between two overhead lines. The mayor said the second outage was caused by a malfunctioning switch on the stadium’s backup power system. PG&E’s latest mishap isn’t the worst public embarrassment (or tragedy, in the case of gas pipeline explosions) it’s experienced, but it adds to its list of public relations problems. The following tweet from a PG&E social media employee indicates that some utility personnel might not understand the gravity of PG&E’s situation: “Candlestick Outage – Power has been restored. Cause under investigation; could be a # of factors. Only 1 customer affected (Candlestick).”

For someone who doesn’t know the whole story, the outage might sound trivial, but for those who do understand, it sounds arrogant and flippant—two adjectives PG&E doesn’t need in its description. Earley said from the beginning that regaining customer respect and loyalty would not be easy. I wonder if he knew how difficult it would be.

Editor in chief

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The Clarion Energy Content Team is made up of editors from various publications, including POWERGRID International, Power Engineering, Renewable Energy World, Hydro Review, Smart Energy International, and Power Engineering International. Contact the content lead for this publication at Jennifer.Runyon@ClarionEvents.com.

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