Utility Players

PG&E crime, FPL’s hardened system, $1.5b PJM Interconnection upgrade

Our round-up of utilities headlines from the past week begins with an unusual sentence—and one that could offer a portent of things to come for those complicit in white-collar crime.

Pacific Gas & Electric: public shaming, community service, monitoring for 2010 explosion. Pacific Gas & Electric executives were sentenced January 23 for their role in a 2010 San Bruno pipeline explosion that left eight people dead. Ultimately, as the six-year saga concludes, the utility will pay more in reputation than money. Executives are being ordered to release a series of commercials in admission of the crimes, and PG&E employees will be required to perform over 800 hours of community service. The utility as a whole is also being assigned an independent monitor and will be branded as a convicted felon. The $3 million fine imposed by a federal judge is minuscule compared to the original amount of $562 million proposed during the trial last year. The sentence, delivered by U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson is punctuated by an order for five years of probation—the maximum amount of time legally authorized.

PG&E, based in San Francisco, is California’s largest investor-owned utility, and the San Bruno explosion is deadliest utility accident in the state’s history.

Florida Power & Light’s ‘hardened’ system withstands hurricane damage. Florida’s largest utility was able to weather its most recent test with what it calls its “most effective response in history”. Hurricane Matthew, the Category 3 storm that shook the east coast in October 2016, caused 1.2 million service interruptions, affecting large sections of FPL’s service area. By the numbers, FPL restored 99% of its customers in less than two full days following the hurricane, while preventing 118,000 interruptions. The utility’s response was so unprecedented, it says, due to over a decade of preparation and funding to ‘harden’ its system.

As Amy Fischbach of Transmission & Distribution World documented, investments over the last decade strengthened more than 600 main power lines, including 700 “critical community facilities”. The project also cleared vegetation from more than 135,000 miles of power lines and completed 1.4 million power pole inspections with upgrades or replacements. But the masterstroke to hardening the system was smart meters. FPL installed more than 4.8 million smart meters and 36,000 intelligent devices to help predict, reduce and prevent power outages and restore power more quickly if outages occur. It also installed real-time flood monitors at 223 substations that are susceptible to flooding, as well as additional water-intrusion protection measures, including sump pumps, flood-resistant doors, sealed windows and other openings in substation vaults.

PJM to invest $1.5 billion in infrastructure upgrades. PJM Interconnection, operator of most of the power grid stretching from New Jersey to Chicago, announced Wednesday it plans to invest $1.5 billion to upgrade aging energy infrastructure. The independent regional transmission organization’s territory covers parts of 13 states including the major cities of Philadelphia, Chicago, and Washington, D.C.; a high-voltage electric power system that serves 65 million people.

Its board voted to spend the $1.5 billion necessary to upgrade electric transmission projects, both small and large, but the biggest project will address aging infrastructure elements in three New Jersey counties—Burlington, Mercer and Middlesex—and rebuild transmission lines, according to the Philadelphia Business Journal. Some PSE&G lines and facilities in that corridor have reached 80 years of age, and are showing signs of wear, PJM said.

PJM’s service range contains major utilities including Baltimore Gas and Electric, Commonwealth Edison (Chicago), and PECO (Philadelphia).

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