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Facing Backlash Over Outages, Southern California Edison Plans Community Outreach

As Santa Barbara business owners sign on to petition calling for electricity infrastruture upgrades, company acts to expand communication

Southern California Edison crews work to restore power after a February electrical outage darkened a wide swath of downtown Santa Barbara. SCE officials say the company is upgrading its infrastructure to ensure its power performance is more reliable. Click to view larger
Southern California Edison crews work to restore power after a February electrical outage darkened a wide swath of downtown Santa Barbara. SCE officials say the company is upgrading its infrastructure to ensure its power performance is more reliable. (Giana Magnoli / Noozhawk file photo)

Santa Barbara’s electricity woes will make the city a part of a Southern California Edison pilot program, which aims to better connect business owners of all sizes to the electricity supply company during power outages.

Right now, only larger companies like Costco are considered “assigned customers,” meaning SCE representatives have a direct line to contact the business when an issue arises, according to Rondi Guthrie, SCE public affairs region manager for Santa Barbara.

Later this month, the company will begin reaching out to local small businesses — especially those affected by a string of electricity outages the past few months — to provide the same level of service.

SCE’s business customer division will gather contact information from owners, who Guthrie said currently must call an 800 number to receive updates on outages.

“So they know who to contact directly about outages,” she told Noozhawk. “We’re actually going to be doing this territory-wide, but, yes, because we have some emerging issues here, it is kind of being used as a pilot program here.”

The pilot program is one in a series of outreach projects SCE has planned for its Santa Barbara service area, which is undergoing infrastructure-improvement work this year to upgrade equipment local business owners say has been far from reliable.

So far, 314 business owners have signed a petition asking the company to prioritize “crumbling electrical infrastructure” in the Santa Barbara business district in 2015.

The last power outage was Feb. 17 — due to an underground equipment failure — when blocks of downtown businesses were shuttered, which happened twice in one week last October.

SCE is aware of the petition, Guthrie said, adding that the company continues to work with the business community while implementing its multiyear, multibillion-dollar investment plan to strengthen a territory-wide distribution grid, serving nearly 14 million people.

Those upgrades are intended to minimize the likelihood of unanticipated and extended outages, a sentiment Guthrie will share during a presentation to the Santa Barbara City Council on March 24.

SCE will also host an outreach event from 9 a.m. to noon April 2 at the Carrillo Recreation Center, 100 E. Carrillo St., and an “outage school” on May 5.

Guthrie declined to provide more information about specific projects going on now or a timeframe for completion.

“As we do drill down and get more specifics, we will continue to make that information public,” she said. “It’s a process. We will be completely transparent.”

Opal Restaurant & Bar owners Richard Yates and Tina Takaya started the petition, which business owners can continue to sign at least through the end of March.

Yates said he’s continuing to meet with other business owners to plan next steps, but they appreciate the electric company’s continued communication.

Business owners want a timetable for completion, more frequent SCE inspections, a backup plan in case more outages occur, and support from the city to keep the projects moving with proper permits.

“Right now, we have 300-plus signatures, but, while this petition has gotten their attention, it does not seem yet to have changed the problem or at least not at a quick enough pace to stop these damaging power outages,” Yates said.

“Businesses are still losing thousands of dollars — in our view unnecessarily — and after years of band-aiding repairs, it is time for them to really hustle to prevent more losses to the economic engines of our area.”

Noozhawk staff writer Gina Potthoff can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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