A plan to cut off electricity in high fire risk conditions is not being well received by Malibu homeowners. Thirty concerned residents showed up to the city’s Public Safety Commission meeting Aug. 1 to let Southern California Edison officials know their adamant opposition to what the utility says will be a life- and property-saving plan.
Ask any Malibu homeowner what his or her top safety concern is and your likely answer is losing their home to a wildfire. Hundreds of Malibu homes have been lost in the last century, even before the “Old Topanga Fire” in 1993 destroyed 268 homes and 2007’s Corral fire took more than 50, along with the Malibu Presbyterian Church. The latter fire was allegedly caused when overloaded lower poles used by Southern California Edison and four other telecommunications companies collapsed in high winds and sparked the destructive blaze.
Now, SCE is exercising its right in a highly charged and controversial plan to shut off power to Malibu customers and other communities during a red flag wind event, coupled with high-risk fire conditions. The utility calls the plan a Public Safety Power Shutoff (PSPS). It is intended to reduce fire risk during extreme and dangerous weather conditions by mitigating the risk of downed lines that could ignite a blaze or from blowing palm fronds and branches that could spark ignition with active wires and transformers. SCE calls PSPS events an option of “last resort,” but also is indicating this could be the new normal.
The plan, derided by residents claiming a power shutoff will likely put in them in greater harm’s way without critical electricity, could be used immediately under guidelines established by the California Public Utilities Commission. A shutoff could potentially last more than 48 hours and SCE officials say with a now year-round fire season, we can perhaps expect two to 10 PSPS events each year.
Local activists allege the practice has more to do with liability than safety.
“These companies are on the ropes financially if these fires keep happening. That’s why the governor and legislature is rushing through this bill (SB901), primarily aimed at reducing the liability exposure for the utilities,” said Hans Laetz, general manager of KBUU radio and an activist in the Corral Fire investigation and settlement. “If a pole is well maintained and causes a fire for reasons beyond the utility’s control—a palm frond—they still have to pay damages. The governor and others, including myself, feel that is not right.”
Laetz told the commission Cpap users (patients with sleep apnea) don’t usually have generators and that traffic lights on PCH only have a one-hour battery life.
“The bottom line is, the CPUC requires SCE, in exchange for operating in our territory, to provide safe and reliable power,” Laetz said. “A power line that is not safe enough to leave on is neither safe nor reliable. The CPUC is scared to death these companies are going to go broke after the next fire. It’s absolving them of their liability. It’s not an issue of public safety. It’s an issue of liability.”
Juergen Cords recalled an earlier fire when homes were lost in his Big Rock neighborhood and urged SCE to install generators on water pumps that would be affected by a power outage. When the tanks were empty “not even the fire department could get water out of the lines.
“It will happen again,” Cords continued. “Maybe it costs $10,000 per pump. But when you consider the houses you will save by doing that, it’s a very cheap price.”
Activist Ryan Embree questioned whether the grid would be deenergized if there are solar users and suggested turning off power in Calabasas.
“The history is a lot of these fires that have affected Malibu have originated in Calabasas,” he said. “Maybe you ought to turn it off over there.”
When asked about burying power poles to reduce fire risk, SCE spokesman Bill Chu answered, “As a ratepayer, we will all have to pay. Underground comes at a very high cost.”
SCE has twice exercised a shutoff in the Idyllwild area. Once, 8,000 customers were affected for roughly 34 hours.
During last week’s Cranston fire, the power was knocked out due to the blaze and then SCE said the fire department requested more service to be de-energized for its own safety.
Growing fire danger
Malibu Public Safety Manager Susan Dueñas said that, while the capability has been in place for a long time, conditions have changed.
“In recent years, the fire threat has grown in California. Now, the CPUC has extended its guidelines to extend throughout the state. When we heard about that, we had great concerns about the PSPS.”
Dueñas added there was a possibility that the shutoffs could be more regulated—per Senate Bill 901, which is currently in conference committee.
“It will stipulate that they will need to do an assessment of the risk to the health and welfare of customers who may lose power, including the impact of water supply resulting from de-energizing power lines,” Dueñas detailed. “It appears the state supports PSPS. The state was very concerned there have been so many large fires and devastation. They’re looking to anything that could possibly reduce the risk of a fire.”
Chu said what was once wildfire season in late summer to fall is now a year-round threat.
“Years of prolonged drought with climate change led to the abundance of dry vegetation throughout the entire state,” Chu described. “Nine million acres, 129 million trees are in bad condition that fuels the risks. Eight of the 20 most destructive fires in California have happened since 2015. Five of those eight happened in 2017. SCE has proactively addressed the risks.”
SCE said it is hardening the system and engineering advances. Power lines are metallic conductors he called an industry practice around for many decades. However, due to risks, SCE is trying to mitigate risks by covering some wires and lines. The utility is also deploying what it called more fire-resistant poles made of composite material that can withstand fast moving brush fires, while also changing transformer insulation with a higher flash point so it doesn’t contribute to a fire as a traditional mineral oil-insulated transformer. The company also said it will use new fuses and surge arrestors to reduce potential ignition sources. And install nearly 50 new weather stations to detect hazardous dry conditions throughout its service territory as well as high definition cameras deployed on mountain tops to allow fire departments access.
SCE’s vegetation management program inspects 900,000 trees yearly and trims 690,000. Chu emphasized “creating a defensible space around our homes and power lines.”