Southern California Edison presents a wildfire safety community meeting

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Utility says it’s working to mitigate wildfire risks 

Malibu’s electric utility Southern California Edison addressed safety concerns while outlining its Wildfire Mitigation Plan at an online community meeting May 18. SCE executives also asked the public to be prepared for the next emergency after presenting their steps in hardening the grid.

After SCE and other California electric utilities have faced lawsuits claiming equipment ignited catastrophic wildfires in the state, regulators have allowed for Public Safety Power Shutoffs (PSPS). An SCE spokesperson, Mike Bushey, started the meeting saying, “We know these outages are painful.” The utility also claimed the power shutoffs are only used as “a last resort in the event of adverse weather conditions.” 

To help reduce the impact and emergency caused by power shutoffs a spokesperson mentioned customer incentive programs such as battery backups and generator rebates it offers. SCE then outlined the steps it’s taking to harden the grid in an effort to avoid PSPS and reduce the risk of its equipment igniting a blaze.

SCE wildfire mitigation efforts include grid hardening. To make electrical lines more resilient and reduce the chance of the system becoming a source of ignition when a foreign object comes into contact, 4,500 circuit miles of bare overhead lines have been replaced with coated wire or covered conductors. Fire resistant poles and cross arms are also being installed, according to Sunny Chu, SCE’s principal wildfire safety manager, who also briefly mentioned “targeted undergrounding,” but didn’t elaborate any further on where this could happen. Later in the presentation, Chu only said any undergrounding would take place in high fire zone areas, but never mentioned if Malibu was targeted. Many Malibu residents have called for undergrounding electrical wires over the years but the utility had always claimed it was cost prohibitive, takes longer to implement (as long as four years compared to covered conductors that can be deployed in less than two years), and would make repairs untenable. Again, without mentioning Malibu specifically, Chu said severe risk areas are being considered for undergrounding. He defined these areas as “having difficult access or lack of roads into or out of an area.” He continued, “If an emergency were to occur, how are those customers able to leave the area or emergency personnel be able to respond?” He said areas being targeted for undergrounding “pose a significant fire ignition risk.” Maps identifying possible sites and more information can be found at SCE.com/tug. In the meantime, SCE claims 75 percent of overhead lines have been covered in high-fire areas.

After inspections of their equipment for wildfire risk reduction covering 50,000 square miles in Southern California SCE said it has trimmed 2 million trees and vegetation that could come into contact with its equipment causing a spark. SCE says it completed 1 million high fire risk inspections, but did not say what equipment or structures were visited. To improve situational awareness more than 600 weather stations and 180 hi-definition cameras have been installed for real-time information and forecasting. Chu said, “It gives us roughly 90 percent coverage of our high-fire risk area.”

Chu continued, “We’ve also improved our PSPS execution and customer support. There was a 99 percent less PSPS outage time on those circuits last year in 2022 than when compared to 2019.” Although Malibu did have a three-day outage during Thanksgiving 2021, “We know PSPS is hard on every customer impacted,” said Chu, who claimed upgrades to the system will lead to targeted PSPS activation for specific high-risk areas.

Valarie Hernandez, principal manager customer care and engagement for SCE, acknowledged “PSPS events are disruptive.” To prepare, Hernandez said the utility partners with local government to send out notifications 72 hours in advance. SCE will contact customers 48 hours in advance when it can predict an outage. Customers can sign up for emails, texts or phone calls. There are address-level alerts for those outside SCE’s jurisdiction who want alerts for a specific address, perhaps to check on elderly loved ones. Sign up at SCE.com. 

Customers enrolled in SCE’s Medical Baseline Program who rely on electrically powered medical devices may be eligible for a fully subsidized critical care battery back-up program including a battery and solar charging panel. A $150 rebate is available for portable batteries to power modems, routers, and internet access. A $200 rebate is offered for portable generators and a $600 rebate is available for income-qualified customers in high fire risk areas.

Visit SCE.com/medicalbaseline for more information.