In the Public Interest
Recent Palo Alto Power Outages: Utilities Improvements Underway, Ways The Public Can Be Informed & How the Community Can Help During an Outage
By Palo Alto Utilities Director, Dean Batchelor
In a typical year, Palo Alto Utilities may see approximately 25 outages, most impacting a small number of customers. This is relatively low when compared to outages that occur in other cities. Unfortunately, we recently experienced three larger outages in rapid succession, and this requires immediate attention and visibility.
Our team takes pride in the legacy of Palo Alto Utilities, and we take personal responsibility for its reliability and maintaining a solid utility system. I’d like to share details on utilities improvements underway, ways the community can be informed, and what the community can do to help before and during an outage.
Recent Outages, Causes & Improvements Underway
Providing reliable utilities service is a top priority for the Utilities Department, and crews work daily to maintain and improve the system lines and operations. When service is disrupted due to a planned or unplanned event, the Department seeks to ensure customers have accurate, timely information about what is going on, any actions you should take at home or at work to assist, and when service will be restored.
Recent outages have strained Utilities systems both on how customer inquiries are handled when they call in to report an outage, and how quickly staff is able to share details with customers about an outage and potential restoration timeframes. While recent outages were unrelated to each other, they nonetheless provided lessons to improve our responses in the future:
· On March 27, 2021, an power outage occurred impacting approximately 7,000 customers for about two hours. This outage involved a failed preventative maintenance project at a substation, which was the result of an inadequate level of coordination between staff and the contractor.
· On April 4, 2021, an power outage occurred due to a blown transformer impacting 570 customers. This outage impacted most of those customers for about four hours, though a few were without power overnight.
· On April 13, a power outage caused by a failed underground cable occurred impacting approximately 2,000 customers.
Improvements are underway to operational procedures, timeliness of public communication, and customer call handling as a result of these outages. Limited staffing resources are being addressed. In addition, changes to the existing outage system for quicker proactive notifications are implemented as of this message and details can be found below.
We are making progress on many fronts such as:
· Evaluating electrical system and outage data to identify any unexpected issues
· Conducting a third-party review of existing systems and procedures
· Hiring additional operators and conducting additional training
· Improving timely public communications during outages (more on this below)
· Evaluating upgrades to the City’s outage management system including automated outbound calling
· Reviewing the organization of utility operations and engineering
More Details on Improvements & Ways The Community Can Help Before And During An Outage
The Utilities team is proud to provide quality services to the citizens and businesses of Palo Alto since 1896. We work hard to provide the community with utility services, including electric, fiber optics, natural gas, water and wastewater and look forward to continuing to provide local service through a high level of customer service.
While improvements are continually being made, Utilities staff are keenly aware of existing limitations and opportunities to improve reliability. Staff frequently make suggestions for improvements, and we are committed to incorporating these improvements into ongoing projects and operations.
With the recent outages, several customers who called in to report an outage shared they received a busy signal or got disconnected from the call before being able to report details. The phone system needs an upgrade; we are aware of the system limitations, and are working to address these issues, including adding more capacity to receive calls and ensuring that calls can get through to avoid dropped calls or busy signals. We are also working on ways to share and confirm an initial outage, in the hope of reducing customer calls into the Utilities phone system.
In addition, several customers reported that the utility outage map was not functioning properly during the March 27 outage. We appreciate the community reporting this to us. We have addressed the map issues that occurred on March 27, and since then, the map has been working properly. In addition, the City is investing in advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) which will help to automatically populate outage data in the future. This will continue to help ensure timely response to outages, improve the outage map reliability, and ensure it can be a reliable community resource moving forward.
Public Communications Enhancements & Ways To The Community Can Be Informed
Several customers noted a delay in public notification of recent outages. We are addressing this in a few different ways, including increasing staff resources to respond during the initial report of an outage, enhancing public communications with an initial outage notification alert, and exploring additional areas to broaden communications through use of the City’s website and more.
To enhance communications at the onset of an outage, we’ve implemented a new system using the Police Department’s Nixle alert notification system. I encourage everyone to sign up for alerts to receive an initial notification when an outage occurs in Palo Alto. Sign up by going here. This new process will share and confirm an initial outage, and then will prompt customers to follow Utilities Twitter updates for real-time outage details and service restoration.
In addition, there are a few things that customers can do to help us as we work on additional improvements. First, please only call 9–1–1 for emergency situations; do not call 9–1–1 to report an electrical outage. To help with improvements to the Utility phone system, customers can verify phone numbers on their MyCPAU online account to ensure correct Caller ID. Log into your account — click on the “My Account” module (at the top) which takes the customer to the “Profile” page. On the “Profile” page, the customer can view primary and secondary contact “Phone Numbers.” They can also edit or add a phone number, which automatically updates the billing system information.
In addition, to stay informed, customers can bookmark the Power Outage Map by going here, follow Palo Alto Utilities on Twitter for outage details as they occur and other updates and go here to gain phone numbers to report a power outage, gas or water leak or service disruption, or streetlight outage.
I also encourage customers to be prepared for an outage and other types of emergencies. As a reminder, PG&E manages the electric transmission grid for the entire Bay Area, including Palo Alto. While PG&E does not directly serve electricity to Palo Alto customers, the City intakes electricity from PG&E’s transmission system. In the event PG&E shuts off major transmission lines in the Bay Area, power outages could potentially affect Palo Alto. As we saw over the last two summers, a PG&E Power Safety Shut Off can impact our local community, so being informed and knowing how you can help and be prepared for an outage is critical to community safety. For details on ways to be prepared before an outage, go here.
Palo Alto Utilities operation is rooted in history, innovation and an entrepreneurial spirit that continues today. We take pride in our unique service model and are committed to a reliable utility system. As one of the only cities in California to own and operate essential utility services, including electric, fiber optics, natural gas, water and wastewater, we are committed to ensuring quality service delivery with a high level of customer service.