Our View | PSPS: Public Safety Has to Be Priority No. 1

Our View

By The Signal Editorial Board

It seemed to make sense on the face of it: When windstorms hit, as they tend to do each fall in California, the fire danger rises, and eliminating potential causes of fires is a prudent thing to do. 

There is a history of high-voltage power lines sparking fires in such windstorms, so the state’s large investor-owned electricity providers, Southern California Edison and, up north, Pacific Gas & Electric, came up with a novel concept: Shut off the power when the winds come up. 

Thus was born the “public safety power shut-off,” the PSPS. 

But there have been some troubling postscripts with the PSPS. 

For some residents, a PSPS is an inconvenience, and not much more, especially if it’s brief. For those who experience lengthy outages, it rises beyond the level of inconvenience, especially if you end up having to replace a freezer full of once-frozen food. 

For still others, though, a PSPS can be downright life-threatening. 

There are those who rely on power, literally, to sustain their lives — for example, people with medical conditions requiring electrically powered machines. 

And, there are those, especially in more rural areas, who are left without water when the power is out, because their well water pumps run on electricity. 

For some, that means much more than going thirsty or skipping a shower. Just ask the Lamon family, whose home in a rural section of Canyon Country burned down in this fall’s Tick Fire after the power shut off and they were left unable to run their water pump, which meant zero protection against the oncoming flames. 

Interested in soaking your property as a preventive measure before you evacuate? Good luck if you’re on well water and the power is out.

“Water won’t free flow … you need electricity to power it, so without any electricity, we don’t have water,” said David Lamon, a 10-year resident whose family home was lost during the Tick Fire.

The PSPS certainly did not work for them. 

As our local legislators have correctly pointed out, there has to be a better way. State Sen. Scott Wilk, R-Santa Clarita, quickly assumed a leadership role in questioning the power companies’ approach, calling for an independent investigation into the need, the causes, and the infrastructure and land management failings that prompted the power companies to consider the PSPS method in the first place. 

Wilk says an independent investigation should be conducted to solve the problem rather than relying on the California Public Utilities Commission, and he has a point.

“Calls for the PUC to investigate these shut-offs is like asking the fox to audit the hen house,” Wilk wrote in a November prepared statement. “The investigating agency must be completely independent from undue influence of both the administration and (investor-owned utilities).” 

“People say this is the new normal, and it’s not acceptable to me — I know it’s not acceptable to you,” Wilk told dozens of residents who gathered at a recent Agua Dulce Town Council meeting to air their grievances with Edison.

Assemblywoman Christy Smith, D-Santa Clarita, also attended the Agua Dulce meeting and joined Wilk in calling on Gov. Gavin Newsom to get to the bottom of the issue, saying, “Recent public safety power shut-offs have endangered the lives of our neighbors, particularly those living in rural communities and the medically fragile. I am pleased to see CPUC vote to investigate investor-owned electric utilities.”

In that same meeting, resident Shawn-e Marlow listed a number of concerns caused by the outages, such as the lack of water for animals, no power to run medical equipment, no ways to communicate and loss of food without generators.

“We are helpless in an emergency,” she said. “Many locals are experiencing anxiety and emotional trauma. This is hitting us like Chinese water torture. We’re going nuts at the slightest breeze.”

She said she has gotten no answers from Edison. “Maybe SCE should stop looking at our concerns as complaints and accept them as real-life hardships.”

Indeed, Edison has been relatively quiet about the options to prevent such shut-offs in the future, and when organizations like local school districts have asked for better communication in advance of a PSPS, the Edison response has amounted to, “We’ve provided all the notification we are required to provide.”

What’s required isn’t good enough. 

Nor is the infrastructure. Critics of the power companies say the investor-owned public utilities have neglected the need for infrastructure improvements for too long, sacrificing good planning, land management, tree trimming near power lines and equipment upgrades while protecting profit margins. 

Such shortsighted strategy has certainly backfired for PG&E, which filed for Chapter 11 bankrupcty protection earlier this year and has agreed to pay a $13.5 billion settlement to government agencies and the victims of last year’s devastating wildfires in Northern California.

We are glad Wilk and other legislators are holding the power companies’ feet to the fire, so to speak, and demanding answers and action. They should keep the pressure on in the 2020 legislative session. 

As Wilk correctly pointed out at the Agua Dulce meeting, PSPS can be more accurately described by another acronym: PSBS. 

Hopefully, in 2020, the new postscript will be that PS — as in public safety — truly becomes the electric companies’ top priority.  

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