Edison Pledges to Tackle a Main Cause of Pole Fires

Malibu City Hall

Southern California Edison acknowledged it has a problem with power poles in Malibu. Cool roofs are cool; styrofoam coolers are not; and the city’s fleet of cars will transition from gas to electric.

At the start of the Nov. 14 City Council meeting, SCE spokesperson Steven Sprague addressed the recent epidemic of outages in Malibu.

“SCE has had some service challenges, and some of the criticism is absolutely warranted,” he said. “We take it very seriously.”

Sprague confirmed that the buildup of dust and salts, or “coastal contamination,” combined with the first wet weather in months and cutbacks in routine maintenance that is supposed to include power-washing the equipment, contributed to “tracking and flashover,” the official term for insulators failing and transformers catching fire and exploding.

Some of the recent outages have sparked brush fires, raising serious concerns during one of the driest and hottest fire seasons on record.

“Coastal washing will continue through this month on PCH and arterial streets,” Sprague said. “We are committed to meeting with the city to address upcoming concerns.”

Local journalist and activist Hans Laetz, who brought the issue to the city’s attention, welcomed the news but indicated that the washing program doesn’t go far enough to address the problem.

“Congratulations to Edison for realizing they have a problem and being frank about it,” he said during public comment. “Malibu has a safety enhancement protocol. SCE is supposed to be taking more steps; instead, they cut back. 

“They can get away with it because the state doesn’t oversee them,” he said. “[Malibu had] point-two inches of rain and it caused 13 outages.”

Laetz said he wants to see the utility held to formal standards. 

“I’m filing this week at the Public Utilities Commission a formal request for rules and to require standards,” he said. 

Mayor Lou La Monte assured Laetz that he will continue to seek answers to the questions raised by the recent outages. 

“Hans’ questions are also from me,” he told Sprague. 

Environmental decisions

Beachgoers will have to find new ways to keep their drinks cold once the Malibu Polystyrene Foam Ordinance goes into effect in 2018. The City Council unanimously approved the ordinance that expands the 2005 Malibu ban on polystyrene (commonly called Styrofoam) take-out food containers to include styrofoam packaging materials, pool and beach toys, dock floats and buoys, coolers and ice chests, and meat trays and egg cartons.

Tim James, a spokesperson for the California Grocer’s Association, objected to the ban on meat trays, arguing that recyclable plastics have “sharp edges” and that bacteria from meat can contaminate compostable materials, requiring special “industrial” composting not available in the Malibu area. 

“There are hazards,” he said. “You are asked not to move forward.” 

“If a city like San Francisco can do this, we can, too,” Mayor Pro Tem Skylar Peak said. “I met with waste management. They would much rather see a compostable product thrown in [the waste] bin than an expanded polystyrene product.”

Other council members agreed.

“This is something we’ve got to do,” Council Member John Sibert said. “But what we might be able to do is use this as leverage with waste management.”

Council also discussed cool roofs — roofing materials that reflect rather than absorb heat and are required in the City of Los Angeles, where high density housing creates “heat islands.” Council Member Laura Rosenthal said she would like to see them required on new Malibu construction and proposed that staff develop a new ordinance.

“Cool roofs are reflective, which we can’t have here,” Peak responded. He suggested that the city include an insulation option. City staff will begin developing an ordinance based on the recommendations.

Council discussed replacing the existing fleet of vehicles with electric vehicles. The city usually replaces its vehicles when they reach 100,000 miles. Peak proposed lowering that number to 75,000 miles, to speed up the process of phasing out the gasoline-powered fleet. He said he envisions recharging the vehicles with the solar panels already planned for the City Hall parking lot. 

Rosenthal amended the motion to permit the city to opt for hybrid or diesel pickup trucks. “Whatever is determined best environmentally at the time,” she said.

The changeover will be gradual and is expected to take several years.