As California acts to implement an effective and sustainable statewide earthquake early warning (EEW) system, Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) is taking steps to integrate the technology into its emergency management and preparedness efforts.

PG&E is working with both private and publicly funded technology developers and integrators, including Early Warning Labs, Seismic Warning Systems, and the ShakeAlert project, which is a coalition that includes the U.S. Geological Survey, the State of California and universities including the Berkeley Seismological Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley, the University of Washington, and the University of Oregon.

These research collaborations allow PG&E to actively pilot multiple EEW solutions to test which ones will allow both automated and human actions in the seconds before an earthquake to protect lives, lessen property damage and ensure rapid service restoration.

PG&E is among the first energy companies in California and the United States to begin implementing EEW technology as a part of its seismic response efforts.

"Safety is the cornerstone of PG&E's culture. Nothing is more important to us than public, employee and contractor safety, and PG&E's embrace of earthquake early warning technology is the latest example of our dedication to taking a proactive and committed approach to preparedness and resiliency," said Barry Anderson, vice president, Electric Distribution, PG&E.

In 2017, PG&E joined Berkeley Seismological Laboratory's Earthquake Research Affiliates Program which is a public-private/industrial-academic partnership group focused on the development and use of innovative earthquake information products. This offers the opportunity for PG&E to access more tailored data feeds that might be beneficial to its seismic response plans. It also allows PG&E to engage with public and private institutions furthering EEW research, including The California Institute of Technology and UC Berkeley.

PG&E said it believes that EEW systems could potentially play a vital role in employee, customer, and grid and pipeline safety, providing a net benefit for customers and employees in its service area and beyond.

The systems use seismic sensor networks to measure shaking and advanced software to calculate the epicenter of the quake, its intensity, and time until shaking arrives at the end-user's location. This all leads to warning end users of impending shaking via desktop computer notifications, as well as through emergency alert systems. Depending on the distance to the epicenter of a quake, the systems can provide anywhere from a few seconds up to a minute or more of warning that shaking is about to occur. Within that time, people could take protective postures and activate safety procedures before the strongest shaking occurs, helping to reduce damage and casualties. Eventually, EEW notifications will be delivered via smartphone, radio and television.

"EEW aids situational awareness by providing operators and remote control systems precious seconds before a major quake to alert field personnel, stand down operational orders and automatically open or close critical valves in pipelines, isolate systems, and reroute power. Taking such actions before shaking starts can protect and save lives, and it can also help prevent cascading failures in the aftermath of a seismic event," said Dr. Stuart Nishenko, principal seismologist in PG&E's Geosciences department.

PG&E's EEW pilots will commence in 2017 and will exhibit the use of EEW notifications and data streams in real-world applications, including:

  • Installing ground sensor stations at select PG&E Bay Area facilities to provide basic audio alerts to employees when a quake has occurred and shaking is imminent. Data from the sensor stations also will feed into the Bay Area Regional Earthquake Warning System (BREWS), enhancing the seismometer network and helping fast-track the adoption of earthquake-warning services throughout the region.
  • Installing hardware on a bank of elevators at the company's downtown San Francisco headquarters, which will provide immediate elevator recall to the nearest floor when a warning signal is received. This will lock the elevator cars in place and allow passengers to safely disembark the elevators ahead of shaking, minimizing potential injury to personnel.
  • Providing desktop alerts to employees connected to PG&E's intranet at the company's downtown San Francisco headquarters so they can drop, cover and hold on before shaking occurs.

Although full implementation of an EEW system might be several years away, PG&E said the pilots are important to understanding the capabilities and benefits of having advanced warning of a coming earthquake. PG&E's long-term vision involves achieving operational automation with EEW technology by integrating it with PG&E's Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) network to actuate electric switches and gas valves to de-energize susceptible electric lines and depressurize gas lines that may be in harm's way. This could mitigate or eliminate hazards, it said, to employees, the public, and the electric and gas grids caused by energized electric lines slapping or breaking as a result of ground forces, or gas line ruptures while at full pressure when the ground shifts.