April 5, 2018

Photo of employees outside the PG&E Gas Safety Academy.
The PG&E Gas Safety Academy is the primary training center for employees learning to operate and maintain every aspect of the company’s natural gas infrastructure. Photo courtesy of David Wakely

In the small town of Winters, California, on 40 acres of former tomato fields and apricot orchards, is the PG&E Gas Safety Academy, a training center that will make California a safer place. One of the largest combined natural gas and electric energy companies in the U.S., PG&E will use the facility as its primary training center for employees learning to operate and maintain every aspect of the company’s natural gas infrastructure.

After breaking ground in fall 2015 and completing in winter 2017, the Gas Safety Academy becomes the third in a series of gas safety facilities opened by PG&E since 2013. The academy uses simulators, virtual learning resources and hands-on scenarios to field-train and educate employees about gas transmission and distribution pipelines, meter maintenance, heavy equipment operation, welding pressure control and excavation, among other curriculum. The academy is a constant reminder of the importance of education, safety and the critical role PG&E employees play in keeping customers safe while delivering reliable service.

Image of PGE Gas Safety Facility.
The academy uses simulators, virtual learning resources and hands-on scenarios to field-train and educate employees about gas transmission and distribution pipelines, meter maintenance, heavy equipment operation, welding pressure control and excavation, among other curriculum. Photo courtesy of David Wakely

“This one-of-a-kind training facility not only represented a complex, technical project, but also reflected many of DPR’s own values,” said project manager Ian Bolnik. “Safety, integrity, and self-initiated change while striving for continuous improvement in quality and service are tenets that motivated us every day as we built the gas safety academy, which will foster the same principles for its trainees.”

Mirroring its customer’s commitment to safety, the DPR team (including subcontractors) completed more than 140,000 hours of work with no recordable incidents, as it built the $82 million, 96,000-sq.ft. facility during Northern California’s wettest winter on record (National Weather Service). Bordered on two sides by a Caltrans drainage canal, the site was used as a contingency relief area during years with heavy rain. According to drainage studies completed in the 1970s, if the water levels in nearby Putah Creek were too high for the canals to drain excess water into, the water would back up onto the tomato field. Prior to the start of construction, a civil engineer coordinated with FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) to create a diversion channel and remap the site. To avoid impacting schedule, DPR found a solution to raise the building pads by 6 inches to get them above the flood plain, allowing construction to begin. 

Mirroring its customer’s commitment to safety, the DPR team (including subcontractors) completed more than 140,000 hours of work with no recordable incidents, as it built the $82 million, 96,000-sq.ft. facility during Northern California’s wettest winter on record. Photo courtesy of David Wakely

Because of its various labs and simulators, the academy has a uniquely large amount of both gas and high-pressure compressed air below grade, as well as inside the building, which was installed by PG&E’s own crews. This amount of gas and compressed air is typically installed beneath roads, not under active construction sites. The DPR team engaged with PG&E subject matter experts and coordinated with other utilities to ensure that the infrastructure beneath the facility was installed safely.

PG&E employees will be trained in three distinct buildings on the campus:

  • The Learning Center: In addition to eight classrooms, a simulator room, and electrical workshop, the learning center includes a flow lab for high pressure gas simulation and gas chromatography, where employees gain hands-on experience in regulating and monitoring the pressure and flow of natural gas. A focal point of the facility, the flow lab contains large, 46-ft. long pipes that have nearly every valve that PG&E technicians might encounter in the field on transmission and distribution gas lines. The pipes are pressurized by a large 300-horsepower air compressor, about the size of an SUV, capable of reaching pressure between 700-800 PSI, allowing PG&E to train their technicians under real-world conditions without the hazards of actual gas. 
  • Transmission & Distribution Tech Center: This area includes a utility worker covered training area, plastic fusion lab and an industrial safety at heights training area, giving students a simulation experience on trucks and excavation machinery used in the field.
  • Weld Lab: The lab accommodates apprentice welders during three-year apprenticeships. 
Labs create real-life scenarios to train gas service representatives about different types of equipment they might encounter at residences. Photo courtesy of David Wakely

Outdoor training areas include the Utility Village, made up of 15 small homes to create near real-life conditions of emergency response and leak detection training for gas service representatives, the people who would come to customers’ homes if someone thought they smelled gas. At the mock neighborhood of single-family residences, duplexes and apartments, technicians practice everything from soft skills such as knocking on the doors of homes, to the technical skills of detecting, stopping and repairing gas leaks.

Designed to achieve LEED Silver certification by the U.S. Green Building Council, the academy has reduced water usage by 35 percent, energy usage by over 20 percent and recycled 75 percent of construction waste. Other sustainable features include the site’s stormwater management, as well as sunshade louvers on exterior windows, deep overhangs and covered outdoor areas on the building’s south side.

Employing 150 people, the academy provides nearly 36,000 hours of training each year as PG&E trains its next generation of energy experts. Through its commitment to continuous improvement, the academy will create ripple effects throughout the state as its graduates create safer gas and electric transmission and distribution lines, making California a better place to live for all. 

Employing 150 people, the academy provides nearly 36,000 hours of training each year as PG&E trains its next generation of energy experts. Photo courtesy of David Wakely