Maria Gutzeit | Power Shutoffs Are a Shoddy Band-Aid

A good portion of my job as an engineer involves process hazard analysis. A similar approach would help power companies and regulators seeking to reduce fire risk. 

This year, the risk-reduction tool of choice was Public Safety Power Shutoffs (PSPS). Southern California did not experience the scale of PSPS that Northern California did. There, an estimated 2.7 million people were warned of outages of up to seven days, and they endured multiple shutdowns. 

However, the Santa Clarita-area PSPS also had some homeowners scrambling, businesses unable to operate (lost wages, delays to customers,) people needing oxygen machines under duress, and added risks to people who rely on private electric-powered wells for water. 

Process hazard analysis refers to looking at potential failure points, ranking their likelihood of failure and the impact of that failure. Then it looks at things that could reduce the harm, especially from high-likelihood, high-impact failures. 

Reviews include everything from operator error to system failure in an earthquake. In the best case, safety measures and backup safety measures are installed and maintained. 

In the worst cases, such as the infamous Deepwater Horizon accident, the West Texas Fertilizer Plant Explosion, and numerous refinery and chemical plant accidents, it is often human error or dismissiveness of safety measures that causes tragic results. 

Even when not dealing with potential chemical catastrophe, many decision makers still use some form of process hazard analysis. What could go wrong? What if the plans we made don’t work, what is the backup plan? How likely is it that a certain type of failure occurs? What fixes are effective and can be done quickly and what will take longer?

The new PSPS were part of plans approved by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) after the governor and state legislators passed Assembly Bill 1054 in July 2019. The bill helped soften utility financial liability for fire disasters if they followed prescribed plans. 

Sadly, the simplistic version of the current plan, at least in Northern California, seems to be “if it’s a red flag warning, we will cut power.” For the last two weeks my phone has been buzzing with “fire weather warning” and red flag texts. 

Kudos to the weather forecasters because they seem to have gotten amazingly accurate. Accolades to the fire crews who were prepared in advance, and to the utilities who did manage to minimize impact. Human and animal lives as well as homes and businesses were lost in the recent wind-driven fires. We feel for those who cannot work due to evacuations or power outages, who lose wages, lose food at home and perishable inventory at work, or whose lives are disrupted with panicked moves to places with the power necessary to help them breathe, move, or otherwise survive. 

Our hearts are not so warm for those who think turning the power off because it’s windy is any kind of solution for more than, say, a minute. 

True, there is an immense scale of fixes needed. Fixing things takes money and time. The problem is that the “solution” that was accepted for 2019 is not acceptable. The utilities, the CPUC and legislators need to further refine their process hazard analysis to reduce the likelihood and size of the impact of PSPS and rapidly fix unsafe systems. 

Electricity cannot stop because of wind. Thankfully, on Oct. 28, the CPUC announced it is opening a formal investigation into the PSPS events and will seek to improve things in 2020.

The results of that plan should not disrupt the lives of millions of Californians. Sure, many have bought generators (which are not a very clean source of power). We’ll have more fuel stored at a lot of properties, legally or otherwise (not the safest thing.)  Those who can afford the combination of solar and large power banks (together costing tens of thousands of dollars just to power part of a house) will go that route. 

This leaves out those who are just getting by and already suffering losses they have to pay out of their own pockets. 

We have seen the impact of PSPS. They need to be reduced, and fast. 

Near-term, tax credits for alternate power and reimbursements for documented losses would help. Within months (not years, as previously proposed), we need measurable, enforceable actions that make the power supply safer when it is on, rather than just letting an unsafe system be powered off as a Band-Aid.  

Maria Gutzeit is a chemical engineer, business owner, elected official, and mom living in Santa Clarita. 

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