Juice: Pole by Pole

By Published On: September 28, 2007

A late summer rainstorm at the end of last week knocked out power for some 30,000 customers in Los Angeles Department of Water & Power territory. The loss of service followed on the heels of a major multi-day LADWP outage arising from an early September heat wave. Power failures may be excusable during wild weather. However, studies show the LADWP outages stem not only from unusual meteorology, but also from lack of maintenance and upgrades of its aging distribution system. Old transformers, old substations and old power lines are as much to blame as heat, lighting, and rain. Couple aging equipment, with growing demand from the ever-widening array of electronic devices in homes and businesses, and what do you get? A reliability crisis. While the problem may be more acute at the nation’s largest muni, LADWP is hardly alone in lagging on distribution system investment. The American Society of Civil Engineers gave the nation’s electric power industry a D grade for maintenance of its infrastructure in 2005, down from its D+ ranking in 2001. The society grades the state of the nation’s infrastructure periodically, as do other organizations, which have issued similar warnings about the reliability of the grid. Reports filed by investor-owned utilities with the California Public Utility Commission show a mixed picture when it comes to outages. San Diego Gas & Electric is the most reliable of the major investor-owned utilities, followed by Southern California Edison and then Pacific Gas & Electric. At SDG&E in 2006, the average customer experienced 53 minutes of outages, less than half the down time experienced in other investor owned utility service territories. There were no major weather events that year in the mostly balmy county. Meanwhile, outages–including ones during major heat waves and storms–have climbed in recent years at both Edison and PG&E, where the average customer in 2006 went without power for 142 minutes and 282 minutes, respectively. Excluding major weather events that year, Edison customers faced an average of 116 minutes without power. The average PG&E customer was in the dark for 151 minutes. That same year, Sacramento Municipal Utility District customers faced outages on average for 99 minutes, including during inclement weather. Like at LADWP, it may not always be possible to avoid outages during heavy weather. Yet the other outages are likely avoidable with sufficient investment in maintenance and replacement of infrastructure. To its credit, California’s energy establishment is responding. Edison has embarked on a major distribution system modernization program. Under a recent settlement approved by the California Public Utilities Commission, PG&E will begin to pour more money into distribution improvements. Sacramento Municipal Utility District raised rates earlier this year, in part to enable it to replace aging equipment in its distribution network. Now, it’s up to the city of Los Angeles to fund improvements in its aging distribution system. LADWP proposed a rate increase to pay for upgrading its system. Its board is expected to consider the price rise next month. However, there are signs that city council officials, who also must approve the hike, and influential neighborhood councils are waffling. Their reasons are numerous. First, and foremost, is the issue of credibility. LADWP president David Nahai insists that the department “is in the trust business.” Yet, its historic record on outages, customer service, contract management, employee relations, and environmental management speaks otherwise. From solar programs that have never delivered promised photovoltaic rooftops, to unquestioned payment of bogus bills for public relations contracts, the department has a tarnished reputation. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s still relatively new LADWP board has been working overtime to straighten things out, but the latest power outages appear to have ended its honeymoon with Angelinos and their elected council representatives. Council president Eric Garcetti effectively told the department that he may not support the rate increase because he’s not sure he trusts the department enough to manage the money. Other council members, like Jan Perry, head of the committee that oversees the muni, said she is unsure whether the department’s problems even relate to money. Meanwhile, neighborhood councils, composed of citizen activists, are growing restive about the rate increase plan, which department officials have billed as a nine percent hike over three years. One prominent neighborhood council activist has taken the department to task over the plan, claiming it actually would increase rates 15 percent after figuring in a new proposed power reliability surcharge and a 10 percent city utility tax. In addition, Jack Humphreyville, who sits on the neighborhood council oversight committee for the department, points out that even in the face of a report warning that its distribution system was badly outdated LADWP found $216 million to transfer last year to the city’s general fund. Humphreyville is grinding his ax over labor issues too at the department, including the lack of outsourcing and relatively high pay of department workers compared with other city workers. Meanwhile, LADWP brass will make no guarantees that they can prevent future blackouts by speeding installation of new lines, transformers, and other equipment within their distribution network. The hurdle, they say, is a shrinking force of skilled line workers willing to climb power poles. To carry out its five-year $1 billion system upgrade plan, the department will need to hire 750 new line workers, according to Nahai. However, the department already is “behind the curve,” according to Henry Martinez, the muni’s chief operating officer. Since the department began its hiring effort, it has lost a net of two line workers, according to Brian D’Arcy, business services manager for the muni’s union, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 18. He expects the situation to grow worse because 40 percent of the department’s employees become eligible to retire in the next five years. The predicament is similar at other utilities, according to D’Arcy, who called the line worker shortage “a national problem” (see related article at page 5). Meanwhile, the department appears even to be having problems handing out compact fluorescent light bulbs, admits Nahai. Its goal is to give away 2.4 million of the energy saving bulbs, in part to blunt demand on hot days and help keep the lights on. So far it only has managed to pass out 340,000 of the bulbs in the city of over 4 million people, the nation’s second largest. So no matter what the fate of the proposed rate increase, LADWP appears to have a long road ahead both in rebuilding its decrepit distribution system and restoring public trust. It can only do so pole by pole, transformer by transformer, bulb by bulb.

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