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At one of its testing sites, Southern California Edison crews use a tree branch to demonstrate how covered conductor technology can reduce the fire risk of live wires being hit by debris. Submitted photos/SCE
Covered conductor technology, where live wires with added layers of protection are used, is being deployed on SCE facilities across areas at high risk of fires.
Scott Steepleton, Editor
1:48 pm PDT March 18, 2021

Could blackouts aimed at reducing fire risks in Malibu be a thing of the past?

Southern California Edison is putting some renewed energy into the idea.

Having settled billions in lawsuits from insurance companies and individuals over recent disasters, including the Woolsey and Thomas fires, Rosemead-based SCE is “hardening” its facilities against future fires.

What does this mean for emergency de-energization, aka public safety power shutoffs, on circuits in Malibu and elsewhere? According to its recently released Wildfire Mitigation Plan, SCE “expects PSPS events to become less frequent.”

The idea behind the shutoffs is simple: a dead wire can’t cause a fire. However, if you’re on the Cuthbert Circuit, which includes the Point Dume area, having the power shut down every time the wind blows hard — and sometimes when it doesn’t blow at all — is a drag. Not to mention that traffic signals along Pacific Coast Highway can also go out during these outages, which were designed to protect public safety.

SCE admits weather and dry fuel conditions in 2020 “necessitated PSPS de-energization events to avoid even more fires than what California already experienced” and acknowledges that “many customers were affected by PSPS on multiple occasions, including holidays — some of whom were trying to work and attend classes from home due to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Having drawn the attention of the California Public Utilities Commission, SCE in February released an 88-page plan of correction aimed at doing more to keep the power on while protecting public safety.

“SCE has heard the clear message from customers, regulators, government officials and public safety partners,” states the plan submitted by SCE attorneys Anna Valdberg and Andrea Tozer. “We must do more to reduce the need for PSPS; perform coordination, communication, de-energization and re-energization protocols more effectively when PSPS is necessary; share our wildfire mitigation and PSPS-related plans in a clear and useful manner; and support our customers — especially Medical Baseline customers and customers with access and functional needs — with more resiliency options.”

The plan identifies five areas of action that, “under similar weather conditions as those experienced in 2020,” should reduce: the number of circuits de-energized during PSPS events; the duration of the outages; the number of customers deenergized; the proportion of customers who were de-energized but did not receive PSPS notifications; and the proportion of customers who received PSPS notifications but were not de-energized.

SCE will share this information with the California Public Utilities Commission bi-weekly before the start of the 2021 traditional fire season, and will measure improvements during and after the 2021 fire season and share the results in a 2022 update.

“They are trying,” Susan Duenas, Malibu’s public safety manager, told Surfside News. “But that doesn't mean that they’re listening to everything we’re (representatives from a number of cities) requesting, and it’s most of us.”

Among the key components of the safety plan is greater use of  the “covered conductor,” a technology used by utilities since the 1970s in Europe and the U.S. where the wire that carries electricity (the conductor) is shielded in layers of materials that ward off sun damage as well as abrasions caused by tree limbs and other objects.

SCE’s three-layer covered conductor encases the aluminum/copper core in Thermoset polymer; a flexible polyethylene; and a high density polyethylene.

According to the correction plan, “Covered conductor is the most effective mitigation against wildfires and protects the grid from a number of issues commonly seen in high-wind conditions, such as blown-in debris, line slapping and downed wires … Fully completing the installation of covered conductor within an isolatable circuit segment enables SCE to raise de-energization thresholds, reducing frequency and duration of PSPS on that segment.”

Rethinking its switching devices will also help reduce public safety power shutoffs. For example, if there’s high wind at one end of a circuit, why shut the entire circuit down? An automated switch that controls a segment of a circuit will ensure that shutoffs happen where they’re needed.

This is an area that residents served by the Cuthbert Circuit would find most interesting.

“The Cuthbert Circuit is a mystery,” said Duenas, who for a year has sat on SCE’s PSPS Working Group. “Sometimes there’s no wind” and yet the circuit is de-energized.

“Fire mitigation makes sense on paper,” Duenas said. “But you think you’d focus on the highest potential for a large-scale fire. On Cuthbert we’re not talking about a Woolsey Fire.”

Duenas said the PSPS might be best left for places like Topanga, or the area between Simi Valley and Thousand Oaks “where all these fires gain momentum and become these huge threats to everyone.”

By cutting off power, she added, “you’re creating other safety hazards. What benefit is there to cut out traffic signals on PCH?”

Officials from a number of cities have apparently asked the utility to focus efforts on circuits that are cut off most often and, perhaps, put them on a priority list for undergrounding.

“Segmenting of circuits is really great,” said Duenas, adding the idea is the result of cities pushing SCE: “Do you really need to turn off this whole circuit?”

Another area of the plan details how PSPS decisions are made and how to improve that process.

“The decision to de-energize … involves the consideration of many dynamic and complex quantitative and qualitative factors that are difficult to communicate, particularly in real time during events,” SCE officials say. “We accept, however, that we must make our decisions understandable to our customers and stakeholders and will improve our transparency.”

This involves explaining its PSPS activation thresholds, de-energization thresholds, and the analysis that goes into  de-energizing a circuit or portion of a circuit.

The utility is also working to improve its in-house weather forecasting abilities, which could reduce the number of customers de-energized without prior notification. 

To overcome customer feedback that there are sometimes too many status updates pertaining to a PSPS, says it will research “the appropriate cadence, and content, for pre-event and in-event notifications.”

Duenas said even some government contacts at SCE realize there’s a communications problem, and she used an outage in Malibu and how it was handled by the utility’s automated messaging system as an illustration.

“Malibu Road had what was supposedly a PSPS, but it was caused by some other failure,” she said. “But when they restored power, the automated message said the PSPS has been lifted.”

SCE says it’s working its communications to the public as well as government entities.

“We’ll wait and see what happens in the fall,” said Duenas.

Ensuring customers whose medical needs rely on the stable flow of power receiving just that is also part of the plan, and SCE says it will work to increase enrollment in programs that provide resiliency and back-up power, including expanding the Critical Care Backup Battery Program to all eligible Medical Baseline customers and verifying delivery of PSPS notifications to all affected Medical Baseline customers. 

Under the Critical Care Backup Battery Program, eligible customers receive a free portable backup battery to power a medical device in the event of a power outage lasting more than two hours. The program provides a solar panel kit for additional charging capability.

Said Mayor Mikke Pierson, "I am glad SCE is working to increase transparency and communication concerning PSPS events.  I think many of us were frustrated by some of the past events and I am glad they are seriously addressing this."

While some local governments don’t have the “bandwidth” to be as involved in the process as Malibu, Duenas, the public safety manager, pointed to her work on the PSPS Working Group and City Council member Karen Farrer’s recent appointment to SCE’s Government Advisory Panel as a sign of how seriously Malibu takes the issue.

“Some cities don’t even bother,” said Duenas. “But we’re making the time because we know how critical it is to our community.”