June 2014

PG&E to Upgrade Potrero Substation

Morgane Byloos

More than a year after Pacific Gas and Electric Company’s (PG&E) Metcalf substation near San Jose was peppered with gunshots, causing severe damage, the utility is improving security at its facilities in Northern and Central California. The investor-owned utility (IOU) will spend roughly $100 million over the next three years safeguarding its infrastructure, building walls, and installing camera, lighting, and detection systems. In addition, the Potrero substation is slated for a multi-million dollar upgrade. 

In 2012, several months before shots were fired at the Metcalf substation, PG&E asked the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) to endorse installation of a new electric transmission line, alongside an existing one, in San Francisco, from Dogpatch to the Embarcadero. The project is designed to improve electric reliability in the City; it was approved by the CPUC earlier this year.

The substation is located in Dogpatch, just west of the Potrero Power Plant, which was closed in 2011. According to a utility report, “PG&E sold the power plant property to Southern Company – subsequently, Mirant Corp. and now NRG Energy, Potrero LLC, the current owner – in 1999, while retaining portions of the site for such uses as an electrical switch yard and storage.” Last month the IOU started preparing to clean up the area around the generating station of pollutants in the soil, groundwater, surface water and sediments. 

The $200-million Potrero substation upgrade will launch this summer, according to PG&E spokesperson Brian Swanson, after the utility has reached agreements with the City, the Port of San Francisco, and NRG Energy. According to a 2013 PG&E document, the monopoly “will acquire from NRG approximately 1.523 acres of land for the new switchyard” next to the existing substation at Illinois and 22nd Street. The project will be completed by 2016. Costs will be picked up by PG&E ratepayers, increasing customer bills by a few pennies per household a month.

“The new Potrero switchyard will be housed inside a self-contained building with security measures such as lighting, cameras, and detection systems,” said Swanson. “In addition to the security measures, the construction of a new electric transmission line and switchyard will add more redundancy and resiliency to the electric system serving Potrero and San Francisco in general. This project will give us more flexibility to reroute power and help keep the lights on for our customers in San Francisco if an electric line is damaged due to a catastrophic event.”

It’s unknown whether the existing facility will receive extra security features. “The City has the option to request that PG&E build a screen around the facility,” Swanson said. “Subject to regulatory approval, PG&E would construct the screen at that point. The screen could be a wall, a building, or some other permanent structure.” According to Swanson, PG&E doesn’t know how much it would cost to construct a new barrier around the existing Potrero switchyard. If the City prompts PG&E to do so, “…working in collaboration with the Port of San Francisco, we will build a new fence that is higher, more robust, and designed to fit in with the surrounding community,” Swanson said. 

In an effort to find out exactly what happened in the April 2013 shooting incidence at the Metcalf substation, the utility has offered a $250,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the perpetrators who fired gunshots that caused extensive damage to the facility. Since the crime, PG&E has worked closely with local and federal law enforcement agencies to enhance security at its facilities. Improvements include employing security guards 24/7, removing vegetation around substations to eliminate potential hiding places, installing fencing and other barriers to obstruct views and protect critical substation components, placing enhanced camera technology, and increasing lighting. The type of improvements vary depending on the characteristics of the stations. 

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