Crash left Palo Alto businesses in the dark

February 18, 2010 7:32:41 PM PST
Palo Alto is arguably one of America's most plugged-in cities. It is the home of well known tech firms, such as HP, and social networking websites, such as Facebook. Yet it took a tragic private plane crash Wednesday to underscore how vulnerable it is to another kind of crash -- a power outage that lasted almost 10 hours.

The Cessna 310R flew into a high voltage transmission tower that supplied electricity to 28,500 customers. That caused a city-wide blackout because the airplane crash took out three lines designed to provide redundant service. A single line can handle the city's needs; however, no one ever expected all three lines to be damaged.

"We don't have a redundancy line that comes in from a different location other than the three that were coming in from the north side," Palo Alto Utility System Director Dean Batchelor said.

Cell phone reception failed as signal strength dropped from full bars.

"All of a sudden it went down to one, and I could not download any data online," ghost writer Jordan Gruber said.

People began to worry about being cut off from the world.

"I would think with all the high tech, the infrastructure would have been able to handle it better," real estate broker Bob Lahl said.

Thursday, the manager of Nola, a popular downtown restaurant, acknowledged he had to throw out a lot of perishable food because he could not risk exposing his customers to a potential health risk from the lack of refrigeration. The Santa Clara County health department put out a warning to restaurants and food outlets to be careful with food that could not be kept below 41 degrees.

The economic toll of the day-long power outage is only starting to be calculated. The manager of another restaurant, Osteria Ccina Toscana, said they had to close for lunch Wednesday. That represented a loss of 80 to 100 meals at $22 to $45 per person. A hair salon said it lost revenue from 35 customers with appointments Wednesday; without electricity, the 13 stylists lost from $45 to $100 in income from each customer.

The city of Palo Alto has operated its own electric utility system since the 1890s. It buys its power from the open market and PG&E delivers the electricity to a switching station where it is transferred to a city-owned substation on Colorado Avenue at the Bayshore Freeway. A fourth high voltage line delivers power to Stanford University from the west.

Batchelor says he expects some discussion to result from yesterday's city-wide power outage. Given the high-profile companies that do business in Palo Alto, the dialogue may include customers whose lifeline is reliable electricity to run computers, servers and other forms of technology. Palo Alto is also home to major brokerage firms and venture capitalists for whom instant access to the financial markets is crucial.

Batchelor said that the city might have to consider adding a feeder line from the south. However, that would be a costly project, running perhaps in the $2 million to $4 million range.