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Pacific Gas & Electric Company will not get in the way of Sonoma County's efforts to form a public power agency, company president Chris Johns pledged.

In an interview with The Press Democrat, Johns said the company would not engage in a publicity campaign to undermine the county's study of whether or not to become a public power supplier to local residents and businesses.

"At the end of the day we want to serve our customers well," Johns said. "If we provide safe, reliable, affordable, customer-focused electrical service, then we believe that we will earn the trust of our customers. And if we can't do that, then I understand why our customers would want to look at alternatives that are available to them."

Two months ago, county supervisors approved further exploration of the matter, including possible partnerships with other public power agencies, and what, if any, financial benefit would result from selling power locally.

Johns said that even if residents choose to get their power from a county agency, these residents would continue to be PG&E customers because "we still provide them with the wires that go into their houses and we're going to still treat them like customers."

Johns said that under "community choice aggregation" programs authorized by a 2002 state law, "if a town decides or if the community decides to seek its power elsewhere, then everybody in that community automatically goes to that community choice and you as a customer would have to make an affirmative decision to say no I want to opt-out and go back to PG&E — that's the way that works."

"We won't be doing anything. We won't be getting in the way of that at all," Johns said. "So there won't be some competitive advertising campaign."

Johns also addressed concerns about the installation of SmartMeters and the safety of its North Coast gas pipeline system.

"Concerns over pipeline safety have been raised in light of last year's natural gas pipeline explosion in San Bruno that killed eight people and damaged dozens of homes. Last week, Johns publicly said the company was liable for the fatal pipeline explosion.

He said there are about 10 high pressure gas lines in Sonoma County dating back to "anywhere from the 1920s to 2010. "We've obviously over the last year been doing a tremendous amount of testing and validation of the pressures that are put through those pipelines," he said.

Johns said PG&E has been lowering pressures in some areas throughout the company's service territory in pipes that are similar to those in San Bruno. The company, he said, also has reviewed pipeline records and, in cases where there are no records because in some cases none were required, the company has been conducting hydrostatic testing of pipe lines.

This year, the company has reviewed records for, or tested, 150 miles of pipe in its system. The testing involves isolating the section of pipeline to be tested, emptying it of gas and filling it with water.

The pressure in the pipe is then raised to about 1.5 times the pipe's operating pressure and then tested for failures or weaknesses. The records for less than a tenth of a mile of pipeline were reviewed in Sonoma County this year, but Johns said that next year six pipelines in Sonoma County — five in Petaluma and one in Santa Rosa — would undergo such tests.

"Obviously, we look for any leaks or bursts or any problem in the line, any weaknesses in the line," Johns said.

Johns said that this review has resulted in three tests that enabled PG&E to find weaknesses in the pipes. Specifically "two bursts and one little pin-hole leak" were found in pipelines, he said.

Asked if there was a specific age for pipe where a pipeline should be replaced, Johns said "it's not really about age."

"It really is where was the pipe, how was it maintained, what were its characteristics, so it's not always about age," he said. "I mean, for sure we're looking at mostly all the pre-1970 stuff .<th>.<th>."

"We're really trying to look more at what kind of pipe was it. You know, was it a long-seam pipe? How was it welded? How's it been maintained? What kind of internal testing have we been able to do versus external testing, and we weigh all those factors."

Johns also repeated the company's stance that it's wireless SmartMeters are safe. The company has installed the devices on the electrical and gas meters lines of 80 percent of its Sonoma County customers.

"We believe SmartMeters are safe," he said. "And I believe that if you go out and look at national studies that have been done, state studies that have been done, they all validate the safety of the SmartMeters.

"And the (radio frequencies)that are associated with those number thousands of times less than that device you've got sitting right in front of you," Johns said, pointing to a reporter's cell phone.

But customers who "feel different" can "opt-out" of the SmartMeter program under a plan that is currently being reviewed by the California Public Utilities Commission. PG&amp;E filed the "opt-out" proposal at the CPUC last year.

"It is a choice that they get to make and we respect that," he said. "In fact we're hopeful that the CPUC will act pretty soon."