More than 80,000 households and 100 electrical circuits in five counties were shut down the night before Thanksgiving, during the strongest windstorm in four years, with sustained winds of more than 50 mph and gusts of more than 75 mph—the oenometer at 69 Bravo, above Topanga, reportedly registered wind speed of 80 mps.
The outage plunged most of the Santa Monica Mountains and coastline into darkness on the night before Thanksgiving. Malibu residents, especially those in the problem-prone “Cuthbert circuit” in the vicinity of Paradise Cove and Point Dume, have had to adapt to all-too-frequent PSPS events—Public Safety Power Shutoff—while surrounding neighborhoods have fared better. This time, the plug was pulled on almost everyone in the area, from the Ventura County western end of the Santa Monica Mountains to Topanga. Most Malibu residents got their power back on the night of Thanksgiving, but many Topanga residents remained in the dark until late on Friday afternoon.
Representatives from Southern California Edison appeared at a recent Malibu City Council meeting to discuss the Thanksgiving Day Public Safety Power Shutoff. They also heard from the city council and disgruntled residents at the hearing.
The Edison representatives confirmed that the windstorm knocked down lines in numerous parts of the Santa Monica Mountains. They described the shutdown as a necessary measure to prevent fires that could have spread rapidly in sustained 50 mph winds.
Jill Anderson is in charge of PSPS for the utility company. “We recognize that the event that occurred last week was terrible timing,” she said. “It put a hardship on customers, interrupting people’s holidays, spoiling food. It was an extreme inconvenience. We have been doing the best to manage through very extreme weather. We recognize that we need to do better.”
Doing better, however, does not include compensation to replace spoiled food, because a PSPS is a planned event, not SCE negligence.
“We only pay for the damage caused from outages that are caused by negligence,” she said. “A weather event is not related to negligence.”
Anderson indicated that she was unaware that cell and phone line communications failed during the power outage. “We work very closely with telecom providers,” she said. “We start coordinating before power is turned off so they can mobilize. They have a requirement to provide backup power, use mobile generators deployed to the area. If Malibu experienced a telecom outage, telecom didn’t deploy.”
Terry Ohanian oversees what Edison describes as “grid hardening.”
He explained that SCE’s first course of action before calling for a PSPS is “load rolling,” moving the load from a high risk circuit to a less hazard prone one, but that this wind event was too widespread and too dangerous.
“There were exceptions in certain areas, but we couldn’t mitigate risk,” he said. “I’ve been an incident commander, this is not an easy decision,” he said.” I realized tremendous disappointment and hardship. We are absolutely going to look at ways to improve resiliency.”
The Edison representatives outlined some of the grid hardening improvements underway, like insulating conduit. They also acknowledged that burying, or undergrounding, lines was finally “on the table” but that it couldn’t be done “overnight.”
The Malibu City Council agreed that the conditions over Thanksgiving were extremely dangerous and that the PSPS was warranted, but they also questioned why Edison hasn’t moved faster to implement permanent solutions.
“We’re not talking about overnight,” added Mayor Pro Tem Bruce Silverstein. “This is a town that has historically burned. Overnight would have been to expect [undergrounding] ten years ago. If this is something that can be done and it hasn’t been done, that is way beyond negligence, it’s deliberate neglect. This was an event that ought to have been avoided by work that could have been done years ago.
“SCE has created an infrastructure that gets dangerous when the wind blows,” Malibu City Councilmember Steve Uhring said. “You were talking today about band aids. Not one word that you have a time frame to eliminate the need to do [PSPS]. I would think after all the heat you are taking someone would say ‘we have to fix it.’”
Until that happens, Malibu and Topanga residents, and residents of high fire risk areas throughout Southern California can expect PSPS events whenever Santa Ana winds and low humidity generate high fire risk. It’s part of the price of living in a fire zone.