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Q&A: PG&E CEO Earley positions corporation for “operational excellence”

San Francisco based corporation, particularly in light of the 2010 San Bruno pipeline explosion
By: Gus Thomson, Journal Staff Writer
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AUBURN CA - Anthony Earley Jr., chairman and CEO of Pacific Gas & Electric Corp., spoke with the media at a joint news conference and teleconference Thursday intended to focus on progress made during his first year at the helm. Earley, who will mark his first anniversary with the San Francisco-based corporation two weeks from now, noted that the time will also mark the second anniversary of the San Bruno gas pipeline explosion, which he described as a “tragedy of huge proportions.” The explosion, which leveled dozens of homes, has been blamed on an inferior pipeline weld. “A lot of things we could fix but we can’t undo what happened,” Earley said. “PG&E is doing everything we can to support the community and the victims of the tragedy.” Earley noted that of the eight people killed, seven of the wrongful death lawsuits have been settled and the remaining case is close to being wrapped up. “It’s good to at least give some of those families closure,” Earley said. In a wide-ranging interview, Earley talked about practices he is putting in place to achieve what he described as “operational excellence,” attempts to reach out to communities beyond the Bay Area served by PG&E, and provide a new foundation of trust for customers rattled by San Bruno and dissatisfied with the corporation’s service levels. The following are excerpts from the session: Q: In light of San Bruno, what improvements are you working on for safety? Earley: We want it to be the hallmark of the company. Beyond the safety of employees we want safety of the public to be the highest priority in our gas and electric business. Over the past year, we’ve pressure tested and validated more than 250 miles of high-pressure gas transmission lines and are online for testing 700 more miles by 2015. We’ve also reached out to our customers with improved safety communication and coordination. We mailed two million letters to people close to gas transmission lines with pamphlets on what to know about living near pipelines. Q: What about on the electrical side of the business? Earley: We’ve taken on a project to reduce the incidence of wires down. We’re looking at replacing overhead wires as well as underground utilities at a faster rate. We’re also improving our commitment to a safety culture by engaging employees. We’re seeing more self-reports and are encouraging employees to raise issues and engage the system. Q: How are you dealing with cutting down on power outages? Earley: 2011 had the best results ever with the corporation for outage frequency and duration. Our goal is to meet or exceed those record numbers in 2012 and I think we’re on track. We also want to eliminate planned outages. Customers don’t care if outages are planned or caused by a storm. And we’re also looking at the area of cutting down on multiple outages in pockets where customers have a large number. We’re starting to drive those numbers down. Q: How does affordability of rates fit into your future vision? Earley: A lot of customers are struggling in this economy and we recognize that. The bills customers pay are at about the national average. But there are problems with the geography of the customer base. The Bay Area doesn’t need air conditioning much of the year while the Central Valley does. We need to better-balance things so areas that need more energy are not penalized. In areas where unemployment rates are shockingly high, we’ve proposed an economic development rate to attract and retain business. We made a lot of progress in the last year and we’re pleased that we’re starting to see customer satisfaction scores starting to respond favorable to what we’re doing but we’re far from declaring victory. Q: On regaining the trust of customers, what will it take to get them back? Earley: My experience says the way to do that is to just deliver outstanding service day in and day out. With every contact we have, they need to walk away saying that we handled that very well. We need to be where we say we’re going to be at the time we say we are going to be there. If we dig up a yard, we need to make it better before we leave. Customers have to decide if we’re really trying or not. And if we have problems, they have to know that we’ll jump on them and fix them.