Edison Outages Alarm City Officials

By Published On: March 7, 2008

After Southern California Edison admitted it was a “bad year” for the utility in El Segundo, the city’s representative in the state Assembly is drafting a bill to toughen liability for investor-owned utilities in communities that experience excessive power outages. Assemblymember Ted Lieu (D-El Segundo) is preparing the legislation after discussions with Edison officials failed to result in any specific company plan for upgrading the power distribution system in the city. Among the ideas under discussion are to clarify the right of customers to sue utilities for damages. Also, in communities where there are more than a certain number of outages a year, the bill would require utilities to reimburse residents for damages and pay a fine to the affected city. In addition, the lawmaker is considering requiring utilities to report outages to city managers and file plans with city officials for preventing similar outages in the future. Since July 2006, the city’s staff has documented 24 power outages, including five that have been citywide, or covered large areas of the community. The city is home to major aerospace companies, the Los Angeles Air Force Base, and shopping malls. El Segundo Mayor Kelly McDowell said that the power outages are due to Edison’s lack of upgrades and repairs to the aging distribution system in the city, which largely was installed after World War II. He added that neighboring Manhattan Beach has experienced a similar level of power outages. “It’s looking more like Baghdad every day. We’re the most business-friendly city in Los Angeles County,” said McDowell. “But it’s hard to be business-friendly in the candlelight.” Edison spokesperson Steve Bradford admitted that it has been a “bad year” for outages in El Segundo. However, he maintained that acts of nature and circumstances beyond the company’s control generally have caused them. These include rain and high winds that have blown palm fronds across lines causing them to short out. In another incident, he said, a squirrel climbed onto a 16 kV line, causing it to short out, melt, and fall onto a 4 kV line. This caused a power surge in 270 homes, many of which suffered damage to electronic equipment, such as computers. Edison does not plan to compensate the residents, said McDowell. In the long-term, Bradford noted that Edison is engaged in a $9 billion program to upgrade its transmission and distribution network. The utility is prioritizing work based on an analysis of its worst performing circuits. So far, Bradford said, the analysis does not show that El Segundo is among the communities most in need of distribution upgrades. “We don’t feel the legislation is necessary,” said Bradford. He called adequate existing CPUC standards for compensating customers who experience losses in outages. Under those standards, customers file claims with utilities, which review them and decide whether compensation is warranted. The basic criterion, Bradford explained, is that the utility must provide compensation when the outage is due to equipment failure or a mistake committed by an employee. It does not have to pay when outages are due to weather and other circumstances beyond its control, like squirrels shorting out lines. “Imagine what our rates would be if we had to pay every claim for a wind storm,” said Bradford.

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