If you drive through San Ramon, California, and see an industrial building with a giant dome, you probably wouldn’t assume that it contains the largest and most powerful lightning generator west of the Mississippi.
But that’s exactly what’s inside Pacific Gas and Electric’s High-Current Testing Facility, located just off the Iron Horse trail on San Ramon’s North side.
The facility exists to zap electrical equipment with human-made lightning, using a massive generator so intense that it would make Dr. Frankenstein jealous.
Frying Equipment for Science
The PGE facility isn’t technically secret, but PGE doesn’t go around telling lots of people about what their strange domed test site in San Ramon is actually up to.
There’s very little about the facility on PGE’s official website. But a local news article on DanvilleSanRamon.com, a case study about the building’s HVAC system, and so other non-obvious resources give compelling details about what’s happening inside.
Basically, the facility exists so that PGE can zap electrical equipment with massive bolt of electricity in order to ensure it can handle emergency situations–like a lightning strike or power surge–before it gets connected to a real electrical grid.
To that end, the facility can summon bursts of electricity at 700,000 volts–about 5,800x more powerful than the electricity you get through a socket in your home.
The facility can also pump 80,000 amps through equipment. A typical home uses only 200.
Testing equipment in this way is crucial to make sure it can perform safely once it’s out in the field. The facility reportedly performs as many as 2,000 tests per year.
PGE tests their own equipment, but also tests electrical equipment for businesses and government organizations.
Lightning in a Dome?
So is PGE really conjuring up lightning in their San Ramon dome?
Technically not. Real lightning is over 100 million volts, or more than 100 times more powerful than the artificial bolts generated at PGE’s facility.
Still, the facility can generate giant bolts of electricity that jump from a massive internal tower, leaping out to strike and fry equipment.
In our book, that’s lightning!
This was demonstrated most vividly by an episode of the popular Discovery Channel show Mythbusters that visited PGE’s facility in order to test a theory related to lightning strikes when people are showering.
They built a full-scale bathroom inside of PGE’s dome, and then had the facility “strike” it with artificial lightning, proving that the myth they were testing was indeed plausible. The episode includes some awesome videos of the facility in action.
It’s unlikely that any members of the public (not to mention intrepid local independent journalists) will be invited inside the dome any time soon. PGE did not respond to a request for more info on the facility.
Still, now that you’re aware, each time you drive by this dome in San Ramon, California, you’ll know a bit more about the amazing experiments taking place inside.