Mandatory Blackouts Approved for Malibu

Southern California Edison weather station

Malibu and other high-fire risk areas in California will have their electricity turned off when dangerous Santa Ana winds approach, under a decision made by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) last week in San Francisco. 

The CPUC turned aside requests from the City of Malibu and Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District. The city had asked for power to vet the decision-making process, and for generators or batteries to be required at crucial installations. 

The city complained its emergency warning systems will be useless without the internet, cellular and FM radio communications that will die without Southern California Edison power. 

“If Edison shuts off the power preemptively … it could create an extremely dangerous and life-threatening situation in our community,” wrote City Manager Reva Feldman, in a letter read into the record in San Francisco.

The school district’s facilities manager, Carey Upton, wrote to the CPUC that it was considering blacking out schools during windstorms without notice, “and without a full understanding of the impact your decision will have on the school community in Malibu. 

“On its face, the described program brings up some very serious questions,” Upton wrote. “We depend on the Pacific Coast Highway for the safe transportation of the students. Having one traffic light out severely slows safe passage. Having all of the traffic lights and street lights out would essentially close the PCH.”

But the CPUC president, Michael Picker, said the number and intensity of dangerous windstorms are increasing, making the need for pre-emptive blackouts paramount over the local disruption to be caused by intentional windstorm blackouts.  

“People keep moving into fire-prone areas, we’ve had 10 years of drought and the fuel potential is only growing,” Picker said in a letter to KBUU radio. 

SCE is installing remote controlled wind gauges around Malibu, and has set up a high-tech weather forecast center. The plan is to give areas two days’ notice—if possible—before powerful Santa Anas arrive, and then cut power when winds exceed a certain speed.

Under the CPUC plan, SCE will have 30 days to write its plan and submit it to affected public agencies, and then 60 days to convene public meetings in affected areas in order to explain the plan.

Such meetings have already started in wide sections of the Inland Empire, where entire cities will also undergo pre-emptive blackouts. 

But the CPUC is not formally requiring the power company to do anything other than listen to comments on their plans.  And it is not requiring Edison to provide batteries or generators to keep traffic lights, water pumps, cell towers and internet equipment working. 

More urgent, from the city’s viewpoint, the plan will black out home routers, cell phones and even landlines at times when storms have arrived, making it impossible for residents to be alerted to developing emergencies by phone, computer or broadcast means.

SCE Vice President for Government Relations Carolyn Choi said the power company is taking new steps to reduce fire danger in high fire risk areas, such as ending the uses of explosive fuses, which isolate short circuits by exploding. If a branch blows against power lines on a circuit, those fuses explode and rain hot metal down beneath the pole. Today, thousands of them are in use in high fire risk areas.

Choi said SCE is going to replace about 3,000 miles of overhead bare-metal wires with thick, insulated wires in its fire danger areas this year.