To many, Thanksgiving in Malibu 2021 may go down in the books as one of the most miserable ever. While thousands of residents were busy cooking Wednesday night before the planned holiday feasts, Southern California Edison (SCE) cut off the power supply to reduce the threat of a wildfire. This while Malibu was still reeling from the Woolsey Fire. The 2021 Thanksgiving in the dark lasted three days.
“We know that these outages are painful,” SCE’s David Ford, government relations manager of public affairs, said while speaking at a virtual presentation on Public Safety Power Shutoffs (PSPS) on May 10. “We’ve heard your concerns. We’re committed to reducing the need of PSPS outages.”
In its presentation, SCE outlined the many improvements it’s made hardening its power supply system while also reminding of last year’s continuing extreme wildfires across the state.
“We’re seeing there really is no fire season,” said SCE’s Christine Fanous. “It’s year-round.”
Fanous explained six of the seven largest wildfires in California have all happened in the past two years. The past decade has seen a steep climb in California brush fires.
“At SCE we’re dedicated to the communities we serve. We’re not just employees,” she said. “We also live in
these communities. We have a vested interest in keeping our communities safe.”
As managing director of transmission and distribution, Fanous presented SCE’s mitigation plan to make the electrical grid more resilient in high fire zones.
The company is hardening the system by replacing bare wire with insulated wire, 1,500 miles of which were installed last year. The company calls it one of the most protective measures to prevent potential sparking from objects that can fly into power lines. SCE is also installing fire-resistant poles and cross arms, fast-acting fuses and sectionalizing devices. There’s a vegetation program to inspect, trim and remove trees to prevent them from coming into contact with electrical equipment.
“We maintain safe distances around our power lines and poles beyond compliance requirements in high-risk areas,” Fanous said.
Four hundred weather stations equipped with cameras for real-time conditions have been installed to help monitor and inform operational decision-makers in a PSPS de-energization.
Many Malibu customers have pleaded with SCE for years to underground wires. Although the company claimed it was “looking into it” in high-risk areas SCE’s Fanous said, “We can deploy insulated wiring at a much faster pace, especially when compared to undergrounding. The costs are borne by ratepayers. Insulated wire costs 65 to 95 percent less than undergrounding at approximately $600,000 per mile whereas undergrounding can range anywhere from $1.5 million to $5.5 million per mile.”
Fanous continued, “As of the end of March 2022, we’ve installed more than 3,200 miles of insulated wire that’s nearly double what was covered at the same time last year. We’re also considering several hundred miles for undergrounding in certain areas that may be able to benefit from additional risk reduction that undergrounding provides such as areas with limited exit routes and wind speeds that exceed the PSPS thresholds for insulated wire.”
Fanous did not mention whether Malibu is under consideration, but did say, “Undergrounding involves permits. In the Santa Monica Mountains, that would involve quite a bit of environmental disruption and traffic closures, so, a number of things are impacted when we try to underground. If you have questions feel free to send it to us at email@example.com.”
After touting its grid hardening efforts in 2021 Fanous stated, “There was a 73 percent reduction in PSPS outage time on circuits that were frequently impacted by PSPS based on weather and fuel conditions.”
Utility officials claimed, “We use PSPS as a last resort to protect public safety under dangerous fire weather conditions; however, we recognize how inconvenient and disruptive outages can be.”
Ford, the moderator, encouraged questions from the public in attendance; however, the Q&A window of the chat section of the meeting was inexplicably disabled, and fewer than a handful of questions were addressed. The meeting ended unexpectedly early without a question-and-answer session as promised.
The Malibu Times was sent an email following the meeting indicating that the speakers noted the reporter’s “raised hand” and requested questions by email. The Malibu Times asked how many hours of power shutoffs occurred last year and whether undergrounding is being explored in Malibu. SCE has yet to respond to that email.