PG&E Prepares to Open New Power-Grid Command Center

Located in Fresno, the control center will allow operators to monitor an increasingly complex electricity grid in real time.

by Tim Sheehan, The Fresno Bee / October 28, 2014

(MCT) — Pacific Gas & Electric Co. is getting ready to open a new control center in northeast Fresno from which operators will be able to monitor an increasingly complex electricity grid in real time and quickly isolate where problems are happening.

The $28.5 million facility on Bullard Avenue east of First Street is the first of three such control centers that PG&E is developing in northern and central California. The Fresno center will be responsible for managing the electrical distribution grid for an area that ranges from Stockton to Bakersfield and includes between 16 million and 18 million power customers. Operators began training Monday, and the center will become operational in two weeks, said Gary Cassilagio, PG&E’s director of business applications. By January, it will employ about 25 grid operators and another two dozen engineers and support staff.

A larger center in Concord is expected to open in June, and a third control center in Rocklin will be operational in October 2015.

It took about 16 months to build the 24,000-square-foot center, located next to a PG&E power substation, and about two months to install the computer servers, work stations and other furnishings to get it ready to open. The heart of the facility is a high-security control room, where operators at computer stations will keep an eye on power demand and circuit problems in real time enabled through Smart Grid technology. “This is where we quarterback what’s going on with the distribution grid,” Cassilagio said.

In the event of power outages, Smart Meters that have been deployed at homes and businesses across PG&E’s service area will automatically alert the control center. Computers will process that data and show affected neighborhoods on schematic circuit maps, allowing operators to quickly determine how many customers are affected, evaluate which circuits or switches may be causing the outage and potentially re-route power circuits to restore electricity while crews repair the problem.

Because PG&E’s service vehicles are equipped with GPS systems, operators will also be able to see where the nearest crews are to problem areas, allowing a more rapid dispatch of workers to outages or emergencies like downed power lines. Crews with access to the computer system will also be able to see much of the same data as operators in the control center as they troubleshoot outages.

Inside the control center, four large video display walls mirror the computerized maps available at the individual operators’ workstations, as well as screens showing satellite weather maps and other power-grid system alerts. During large-scale events such as storms or regional power emergencies, the views and data on the computer screens in Fresno can instantly be shared with operators at the other two control centers, giving PG&E a better capacity for what Cassilagio called “greater disaster-recovery flexibility” should another center be incapacitated.

Once the Fresno, Concord and Rocklin centers are running, they will take over operations now handled by 13 older control centers in different parts of PG&E’s sprawling service area, Cassilagio said. The technology of the new centers is a marked contrast to the older facilities, where operators use large paper maps and push pins to locate power outages or other emergencies.

About 125 grid operators now work in the 13 older centers; by the time the conversion is complete, that number will be reduced to about 100, many of which will be relocating to work in the new centers. Those figures don’t include mappers, engineers and other support staff, Cassilagio said.

In addition to the technological guts of the facility, the center includes a fitness area and locker room for employees, two kitchens and dining areas where employees can prepare and eat their meals, and diesel generators that can keep the center up and running for at least 24 hours in the event of a power disruption.

©2014 The Fresno Bee (Fresno, Calif.). Distributed by MCT Information Services.

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