Lawmakers Call for Policy Direction on Outage Response

By Published On: January 27, 2012

Lawmakers raised concerns about adequate oversight of how Southern California Edison and other investor-owned utilities communicate with customers and work to restore services after power outages caused by natural disasters and other emergencies at a California Public Utilities Commission hearing Jan. 26 in the Los Angeles area. “Can the CPUC strengthen its oversight,” Assemblymember Mike Eng (D-Monterey Park) asked commissioners. Commissioners held the hearing to delve into the experiences of customers and municipalities in the San Gabriel Valley after a hurricane force wind storm knocked out power to 439,000 Southern California Edison customers. Some had no power for up to a week after the storm hit late on the evening of Nov. 31 and continued into the morning of Dec. 1. Eng questioned why the utility did not call in other neighboring utilities to help restore power after the storm caused massive damage to Edison’s distribution system. The Monterey Park Democrat also questioned whether Edison poles were overloaded, causing them to snap in the wind. He suggested that pole stress tests are needed. An aide to state Sen. Carol Liu (D-La Canada-Flintridge) advised that the state’s utilities should be required to develop plans for how to deal with emergencies. Assemblymember Anthony Portantino (D-La Canada-Flintridge) has authored legislation calling for such plans. He told the commission he wants to make sure that local governments are able to participate in their development. “We are not strangers to outages,” said Edison president Ron Litzinger, but he called the storm--with its wind gusts of up to 100 miles per hour--“unprecedented” in terms of the damage it did to the utility’s system. He expressed regret about the inconvenience to Edison customers. He also pledged that the utility would review all claims for losses caused by the outage, but indicated the company may not necessarily be required under law to reimburse all claimants. After the utility president spoke, Edison customers complained about the way the company is handling claims at the crowded and often boisterous meeting in Temple City. Litzinger called concerns about poles snapping due to overloading with both power and telecommunications equipment premature. Edison, he said, is cooperating with a CPUC investigation into the outage and has hired an outside consulting firm to conduct an internal review. The company president pledged that it would make its own report public. One of the key problems, Litzinger admitted, was that the utility was unable to restore power as fast as it estimated to customers, despite that it pulled its own crews into the damage zone from other areas in its service territory, plus hired contract crews. The reason Edison could not give customers and cities accurate estimates is because an automated system designed to map which circuits were out based on complaints did not work due to the nature of the storm, according to Lynda Ziegler, utility executive vice president for power delivery services. Normally, crews would trace the circuits upstream for damage based on the location of outage reports from customers, she explained. Then the system was supposed to provide estimates of how long it would take to repair the lines. The system’s failure resulted in Edison providing inaccurate power restoration dates on its website and in conversations with its customers and the media, Ziegler explained. One reason the system may not have worked as planned was that a large number of circuits shut down even though they weren’t damaged, explained Raymond Fugere, CPUC Consumer Protection & Safety Division supervisor. He said the undamaged lines likely shut down after being shorted out by debris blowing in the wind. Aside from the undamaged circuits that shut off, Edison customers reported 4,000 downed power lines. Edison officials added that 200 power poles came down in the storm. Falling trees caused much of the damage. Aside from being criticized for providing inaccurate information about restoration times, Edison took heat for failing to go door-to-door to notify customers of restoration timelines, particularly handicapped and infirmed customers who have medical baseline service. The company used the Internet and announcements on the radio, which made it difficult for customers without power to access the information, elected officials and utility customers complained. Elected officials called for Edison to go door-to-door and to hold conference call briefings for local governments in future outages to they can in turn provide information to their residents.

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