October Smoke

Intentional power blackouts in Malibu last fall were triggered by forecasts—not actual winds, but forecasts—of sustained winds of just 28 miles an hour.

That’s the stunning recent discovery by Cal Advocates, the new independent consumer advocacy office in the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC).

Local news radio station KBUU News has been reviewing thousands of pages of documents filed by Southern California Edison and other parties as the controversial intentional blackout program called PSPS (public safety power shut-off) is under fire, both in Malibu and elsewhere.  There was a day-long CPUC workshop Monday examining the controversy.

The state investigators have cross-examined Southern California Edison on the utility giant’s policies for blacking out the Cuthbert Circuit—that’s the set of overhead wires in the Paradise Cove and Point Dume area. That’s the circuit that over and over again gets blackout warnings, and sometimes actual blackouts, even during mild winds.

Edison officials, under cross-examination by state officials, admitted that they turn off the power at wind speeds that are less than what they had originally told the CPUC, the public and reporters. Forecasts of sustained winds of just 28 miles per hour are all it takes to issue blackout warnings on the Cuthbert Circuit, according to responses from the utility company.

On Monday, the CPUC held a daylong public session on the power blackouts. Several cities testified, although Malibu was not among them.

Community leaders in Simi Valley and Santa Clarita blasted Edison for abusing the power blackout rules, which under state policy require “reasonable” decisions by Edison on when to shut off power.

The CPUC’s enforcement branch used to hold utilities to a rule that power poles had to be built to deliver power and not fail unless subjected to wind gusts above 92 miles per hour, for a three-second blast. As KBUU has been reporting for two-and-a-half years, that rule has been gutted. 

Now, SCE can turn off the power under whatever “reasonable” conditions its engineers and lawyers determine. The power company has been caught doing that on some circuits with just 25-mile-per-hour gusts forecast.

One small community—not Malibu—has had enough.

A community association in Acton (near Antelope Valley) on Monday accused SCE of making decisions to kill power there because its overhead power equipment “does not appear to comply with structural standards imposed” by CPUC mechanical rules.

The association commented that “SCE has established very low PSPS windspeed thresholds of only 25 mph (sustained) and 40 mph (gusts) out of concern that its equipment could experience mechanical failure at sustained windspeeds of 31 mph and wind gusts of 46 mph, far below the wind load standards set by General Order 95 [the CPUC rules on power pole strength].”

Acton argued that while “such shutoffs may be necessary for public safety purposes, they are nonetheless ‘unreasonable’ because SCE has a duty to maintain its equipment in compliance with GO 95.”

At the Monday workshop, Simi Valley Mayor Keith Washburn blasted Edison.

“In our case, public safety power shut-offs are anything but ‘public safety,’” the mayor said. “It’s just quite the opposite. The most dangerous aspect of the PSPS blackouts is that it shuts down the power signals throughout the city, and these are in areas that are not near any wildland areas and yet we are told over and over again that this is going to prevent wildland fires.”

Simi Valley has had six intentional power blackouts since last summer. It has 70 traffic lights. It has spent $1.5 million and it faces numerous lawsuits because of car crashes.

Washburn is a retired Ventura County firefighter—he said SCE used to patrol power lines with firefighters, and when they saw a tree or brush endangering a power line, they would trim it on the spot.

He says that doesn’t happen anymore.

Instead, Washburn said, Southern California Edison has simply foisted their legal problems onto others.

“The potential loss for life due to traffic collisions is absolutely astonishing for our city,” Washburn said. “And we have claims and expect more claims for the many traffic crashes that were caused by the lack of powered traffic signals. It appears to us that Edison transferred their wildfire liability in a different form to the cities, businesses and residents that they serve.”

Southern California Edison had no comment Tuesday on the revelation that 28-mile-an-hour winds—or even the prediction of 28-mile-an-hour winds—prompted blackouts in Malibu.

The company has embarked on a public relations drive and an Edison spokesman said, “We plan to have additional community meetings to give everyone an opportunity to provide their feedback and continue this dialogue. Thanks.”

A Malibu reporter signed up for the meeting but was not admitted.

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