Customers at Tap Haus watch the Warriors game on televisions powered by generators during an outage in Berkeley on Thursday, June 2, 2016. Photo: David Yee

When the power went out during the first half of a Warriors game on June 2, it was the last straw for many Berkeley residents. “Roving blackouts or just Berkeley living?” posted Jeff Terry on Twitter. Also on Twitter, Kelsey Waxman wrote: “#poweroutage in Berkeley for 2nd time this week. @PGE4Me what is going? Electricity was more reliable in rural #Uganda.”

“I’m really curious why this is happening,” emailed a reader to Berkeleyside. “PG&E hasn’t given any substantive explanation other than ‘underground wiring issues’… as the power losses continue to affect thousands of Berkeley residents, explanations for them should be given.”

“Isn’t the frequency of these things getting a little spooky?” asked another reader, also in an email.

Read past power outage coverage on Berkeleyside.

The June 2 outage, which affected 4,100 PG&E customers at its peak, was caused by an underground equipment failure at University and Bonita avenues, according to PG&E spokeswoman Tamar Sarkissian. It followed close on the heels of another outage two days earlier, on May 31, which affected more than 10,000 customers downtown and in Southeast Berkeley, and was also, according to Sarkissian, caused by an underground equipment failure. Why the equipment failed in both cases was still under investigation when this story went to press.

Tap Haus owner Doug Miller hooks up generators during a power outage in Berkeley on Thursday, June 2, 2016. Photo: David Yee
Tap Haus owner Doug Miller hooks up generators during a power outage in Berkeley on Thursday, June 2, 2016. Photo: David Yee

Earlier in May, several thousand locals were affected by an outage caused by a vehicle crashing into a PG&E pole in the 2500 block of Mabel Street. The previous month, 43,000 customers were without electricity after an explosion at a power transformer at the PG&E substation in El Cerrito.

Sarkissian said PG&E recognized the inconvenience outages cause the local community. “We aim to restore power as safely and as quickly as possible,” she said, adding that underground repairs can be complicated and may take more time than those dealt with at street level.

At the request of Berkeleyside, Sarkissian supplied data for the number of outages affecting Berkeley that have occurred since the beginning of the year. According to PG&E, since Jan.1 there have been eight outages affecting 2,500 customers or more; and three outages affecting 5,000 customers or more.

2015 also saw several significant outages, not least the one in June which impacted 45,000 East Bay PG&E customers and was caused, according to the utility, by a squirrel scampering into the El Cerrito substation and prompting an equipment breakdown.

A PG&E crewmember at work during an outage in Berkeley on May 31, 2016. Photo: David Yee
A PG&E crewmember at work during an outage in Berkeley on May 31, 2016. Photo: David Yee

While some of the recent outages coincided with relatively hot weather, Sarkissian said there have been no indications that the equipment failures were triggered by a sudden surge in electricity use, caused, for example by air-conditioning units — which are relatively scarce in the East Bay in any case.

“At times we do see outages due to many people turning on the A/C,” she said. During hot spells, PG&E sends out alerts to try to help minimize use, she said.

Berkeley is served by its own substation as well as the one in El Cerrito for its electricity. PG&E has several ‘reliability projects’ planned for the area, said Sarkissian, which means work such as cable and equipment replacement. In 2014, PG&E completed a reliability project at the Berkeley substation. And late last year the utility replaced half a mile of cable in the Telegraph/Dana/University/Dwight area of Berkeley, she said.

The El Cerrito substation, which is at Schmidt Lane and Cabrillo Street, just north of the swim center, is to be completely rebuilt over the next few years in a multi-phase project. “All three transformers will be replaced and we are adding 50% more capacity,” Sarkissian said. All phases of the rebuild will be completed by 2021, she said.

Register online to report and receive outage updates from PG&E.

For John Caner, head of the Downtown Berkeley Association, the recent spate of outages has been frustrating. He wrote PG&E to complain, emphasizing the “significant detrimental effect” the cuts had on the DBA’s members and their ability to do business.

“The power outages are getting out of hand in Downtown Berkeley and elsewhere in Berkeley. What is PG&E doing to address these problems so these outages do not continue?” he wrote. Caner added: “Can we also get a report on why these outages occurred, and reports on (hopefully unlikely) future outages? As well as realtime notification of when and where outages occur and are resolved?”

A PG&E spokeswoman responded, acknowledging the inconvenience, outlining details of the planned reliability work, and reporting that investigations were underway to find out what triggered the latest two underground equipment failures. As for the questions about alerts, the spokeswoman responded: “We communicate updates to Berkeley City officials, who in turn provide the notices to the City’s PIO and Public Safety Communications Center.”

Berkeley power outage affects more than 10,000 (05.31.16) 
Thousands in Berkeley, Oakland hit by power outage (05.13.16)
Power restored after outages affect 43 000 in East Bay (04.25.16)
Squirrel causes power outage for 45,000 in East Bay (06.08.15)

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Tracey Taylor is co-founder of Berkeleyside and co-founder and editorial director of Cityside, the nonprofit parent to Berkeleyside and The Oaklandside. Before launching Berkeleyside, Tracey wrote for...