State officials ask SoCal Edison about their ‘mistakes,’ ‘operational gaps’ during power shutoffs

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California Public Utilities Commission members asked Southern California Edison officials to address the power company’s “mistakes” and “operational gaps” that led to widespread power shutoffs over the past few months, during a webcast meeting Tuesday.

Between May and December 2020, SoCal Edison shut off the power to its customers — a program known as Public Safety Power Shutoffs, or PSPS, which are designed to prevent wildfires caused by downed power lines and other failed utility equipment — a total of 16 times.

A large number of these shutoffs affected the Santa Clarita Valley, especially the communities in Canyon Country and Acton/Agua Dulce, with neighborhoods going without power on Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve.

SoCal Edison officials, when previously asked by The Signal how many of its 5 million customers were affected in the SCV during outages earlier in January, whether by being issued a shutoff warning or actually having their power shut off, have been unable to provide that information.

During the meeting, CPUC President Marybel Batjer said that the PSPS appeared to “not measure up” to the standards customers expect from their power company, and that the shutoffs seemed to have been “confusing” and “poorly executed.”

“These shutoffs aren’t just an inconvenience,” added Batjer. ”For many, a loss of power means loss of income, loss of a day or more of learning, and fear or uncertainty for those who rely on backup power to sustain life-supporting medical services.”

Batjer said SoCal Edison had only deenergized 20% of the customers they had given advance notice of possible PSPS, but that she believed this number was still too high and communication needed to improve for 2021.

“There’s something wrong with the planning approach if you’re consistently putting large numbers of customers on notice, people are changing their plans, getting prepared, and then nothing happens,” she said. “There are also instances where the opposite happens — where customers are deenergized with no notice.”

In response to some of the issues brought up by the commission, SoCal Edison President Kevin Payne said the most significant way to reduce their utility-caused wildfires and PSPS is to install more covered conductors. Edison officials said they installed 1,000 miles of those in 2020, with plans to do more in 2021. However, in other areas, they can see the need for improvement.

“An example here is the significant variance between the number of advanced customer notifications we send out and the actual number of customers we deenergize,” said Payne. “We notify customers based on forecasts … so they have the opportunity to prepare.”

“We need to improve a lot in this area so that we can notify our customers by using more granular weather forecasting,” he said.

State officials said there was not only inconsistency in how Edison reported the shutoffs to customers, but also Edison was sometimes minutes or even hours late in providing information to state agencies. They also said it was unclear what the threshold was for determining when and where power would be shut off.

“We have a complex process here that is designed to try to optimize the situation, keep people safe, and keep as many people online as possible,” said Payne. “But we currently aren’t really explaining that in a transparent way to the people in the communities that are being affected by it. So, I will take that away as an action item for us.”

Local political representatives said during the meeting that certain SCV communities have been more impacted than other areas of Los Angeles County, and they agreed with many of the points made by the commission.

“In the past week alone, I’ve heard from over 600 constituents about how PSPS events have had very serious effects on their lives,” said Assemblywoman Suzette Valladares, R-Santa Clarita, during the public comment section of the meeting. “Not the past 50 days, but in the past five days.”

“We absolutely need to end this practice,” said Rep. Mike Garcia, R-Santa Clarita, also during the public comment section of the meeting. “I am convinced more than ever now that the harm and the risk being imparted by these shutdowns is actually greater than the harm and risk by the threat of fires.”

Payne said the company was also completing an end-to-end review of its communication process, and would be doing more to help customers understand the need for their potential PSPS.

“We know it’s far from perfect … and in some areas, we have already made improvements, and in others,” he said, “we have some work to do.”

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