No clear answers from SCE

DE-ENERGIZED—California Public Utilities Commission members listen during a Jan. 26 meeting as dozens of officials and residents express their displeasure with recurring power shut-offs. Screenshot CPUC meeting

DE-ENERGIZED—California Public Utilities Commission members listen during a Jan. 26 meeting as dozens of officials and residents express their displeasure with recurring power shut-offs. Screenshot CPUC meeting

Time will tell if their complaints will be acted upon, but Southern California Edison customers at least had the chance last week to publicly vent about the recurring power shut-offs that have left many of them in the dark for hours on end in recent months.

During a marathon 4½-hour meeting Jan. 26 hosted virtually by the California Public Utilities Commission, SCE officials got an earful from residents and elected officials who are angry about the company’s Public Safety Power Shutoff program, which aims to prevent SCE’s equipment from sparking wildfires when strong winds whip through the county.

For the past months, SCE has enacted multiple shut-offs, leaving thousands in Ventura and Los Angeles counties without electricity for upward of 30 hours at a time.

Marybel Batjer, CPUC president, said power shut-offs should be a last resort, not the first.

“The stakes of turning off the power are very high (because) for many (it) means loss of income, loss of learning and fear and uncertainty,” Batjer said. “Loss of power caused major disruptions to businesses, medical facilities, communications carriers and other critical infrastructure.”

Kevin Payne, SCE president/ CEO, said the company has four objectives when it initiates a shutoff: protect public safety, keep the power on for as many customers as possible, communicate clearly and accurately, and minimize the affect when outages do happen.

In 2020, while checking equipment after shut-offs, SCE discovered least 60 instances of wind-related damage that could have caused a fire, he said. Those numbers, he said, show why the shut-offs were necessary.

“While we know the actions we took were needed to protect public safety, we also understand there’s more we can do to help our customers understand the need for these, how we make our decisions and how we will support them during future events,” Payne said.

But attendees weren’t satisfied with Edison’s answers.

During more than two hours of public testimony, dozens of attendees voiced their continued frustrations over the shut-offs and urged the utilities commission to hold SCE accountable.

Many said SCE never addresses what they’re doing to prevent future shut-offs or how they’re planning to compensate people who have been severely affected0 during the outages.

Some were angered that SCE offers complaint forms but typically ends up denying most, if not all, reimbursement claims for loss of food or internet service. Others were upset that there’s no credit for the time they’re left without power, yet Edison is looking at increasing rates in February.

Steve Powell, SCE’s executive vice president of operations, said the agency has fallen short, but is working on corrective action plans that will include a full review of their communications process with customers.

“Frustration, anger, confusion— these are all things that need to be (recognized),” Powell said. “(Power shut-offs have) a big impact on our customers . . . and it pains me that we’ve not yet delivered on that. But we’re committed to being better.”

Fires attributed to the company’s equipment have cost the company millions. In 2019, SCE agreed to pay more than $360 million in claims from the 2017 Thomas and Koenigstein fires, the 2018 Montecito debris flows and the 2018 Woolsey fire.

Elected officials speak

Several elected officials joined in the call demanding SCE do better and that utilities commission hold them accountable for the disturbances caused.

Moorpark Mayor Janice Parvin and Simi Valley Mayor Keith Mashburn shared the impact the power outages had on thousands of residents during 2020, particularly in November and December when there were several public safety power shut-offs back-to-back.

Parvin said SCE failed to keep the public informed about when power would go out and when it would return. Often, the information it did send out was disjointed or no longer timely, she said.

Mashburn said the shut-offs often caused other hazardous situations, like traffic signals going out.

Assemblymember Suzette Valladares said more than 600 constituents in her 38th District have complained to her.

“This isn’t only an issue of inconvenience, cost and fairness, but also of public safety,” Valladares said, especially during a pandemic when many are working or studying from home, need electricity for medical devices or have to pump water from wells into their homes.

Rep. Mike Garcia said shutting off electricity needs to stop because the harm can be greater than the fire risk.

“We need to figure out how to change the thresholds so it’s not being implemented in such an arbitrary and capricious manner,” Garcia said.

Sen. Henry Stern said SCE has repeatedly claimed that it’s going to fix the issues and provide ways to mitigate damage, but nothing changes.

“If it’s determined that Edison hasn’t acted prudently or in any way violated the guidelines of (CPUC), then penalties and fines should be considered,” he said.

What’s next

Mashburn said he was impressed with CPUC’s understanding of the situation and was grateful that the commission gave the public and elected officials a chance to weigh in on the shut-off events.

“It should be abundantly clear after yesterday that people aren’t going to allow SCE to continue with these PSPS events and they need to take action. But I’m not convinced (SCE will) actually do anything,” he said.

At the end of February, the commission will host another meeting with several providers, including SCE and PG&E, to discuss how shut-off events will be implemented in 2021.

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