The robotic injector carefully introduces a liquid sample into a glowing ball of plasma that is hovering mid-chamber. Instantaneously the sample is dispersed across a spectrum yielding important answers. This is not an event someone witnesses every day. Unless, of course, you are one of the lab technicians at San Diego Gas & Electric’s (SDG&E) Environmental Analysis Lab.
Connected to the environment
An untold and perhaps unexpected facet of SDG&E, the Environmental Analysis Lab evolved out of SDG&E’s original power plant laboratories that started in the 1940s. Today, it is a fully accredited testing facility supporting SDG&E’s utility operations including the electric and gas divisions that take protecting the environment seriously.
“We offer a unique way of protecting the environment, by looking at it on a different level beyond what most can see,” said Randal Calentine, environmental analysis lab manager. “We are also the only fully State of California accredited laboratory that also performs electrical equipment performance testing in the San Diego area.”
The work done by the lab is directly related to the condition of electric transformers out in the field. In partnership with company engineers, the team proactively assesses the age and performance of transformers to avoid potential problems and, in turn, improve system reliability.
Led by Calentine, the 13 member team consists of technicians, chemists, and technical support. These talented and highly credentialed professionals collectively represent 199 years of environmental analysis experience that make a tangible difference in the environment and the welfare of SDG&E employees and customers.
Small, but mighty
While the lab team is small by comparison to similar private labs (there are three others in the area), the numbers surrounding their work is sizable. Annually, they perform 20,000 to 30,000 tests and complete 140 reports each month. The team actively tests approximately 400 transformers throughout SDG&E’s service territory. And, they have approximately 100 chemical methods available to them to analyze pollutants, metals, oil, and inorganic material.
The lab plays an integral role beyond existing operations and equipment, aiding future projects under development. For example, when SDG&E is constructing a project that requires soil import or disposal, Calentine’s team will test soil before it comes onto or leaves any SDG&E jobsite. This proactive service helps assess the quality of the soil. If it contains contaminants, it won’t be used.
“Quite often, we exceed given requirements, simply because it is the right thing to do,” said Calentine.
Calentine is also quick to point out the team’s strong safety culture. “We have gone 15 years without a lost time incident,” he stated.
The lab’s work doesn’t end with SDG&E. They also provide both certified and non-certified analytical testing and consulting services to outside companies, including a university, government entity, and other power plants.
With important consequences at stake, and a grand responsibility to customers and the environment, Calentine and his peers must be tightly coordinated in what they do each day.
Sophisticated equipment needs daily calibration. New samples arrive regularly that must be logged, scheduled and prepped. Some are temperature sensitive. At least three times per week, Field engineers, environmental specialists and project managers require feedback on the condition of oil, soil or water samples within 24 hours or less. And on any given day, two or three of the Lab’s scientists are working out in the field.
When compared to other sectors of SDG&E who are on-the-scene providing a recognizable and direct connection to customers, the Environmental Analysis Lab employees operate backstage in a supportive, yet vitally relevant role.