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Southern California Edison Prepares Response Plans for El Niño Storms

Electricity provider briefs Santa Barbara city, business leaders on work to prevent outages as winter approaches

Southern California Edison crews are preparing to work in the rain if stronger than normal storms occur because of El Niño.
Southern California Edison crews are preparing to work in the rain if stronger than normal storms occur because of El Niño.  (Southern California Edison photo)

With record rainfall possibly on the way, Southern California Edison officials say they’re making a number of proactive moves to prevent outages during significant storms.

Those changes include assigning first-responder teams to the Santa Barbara coverage area ahead of winter storms, installing portable generators at local substations, and coordinating with other agencies and providers — such as PG&E operating in northern Santa Barbara County — so plans are in place if there’s an outage crews can’t get to.

Edison CEO Pedro Pizarro and Paul Grigaux, vice president of transmission, substations and operations, shared those plans and more last week with Santa Barbara city and business leaders during private meetings.

The South Coast electricity provider is starting a community outreach campaign to show its dedication to preventing future outages — like the four major ones seen this year in Santa Barbara — especially those related to this winter’s El Niño weather forecast, which shows a 95-percent chance of a stronger than normal rainy (and windy) season.

“Once the forecast became a higher probability, we took a number of steps to see where those weather events could be most significant,” Grigaux told Noozhawk.

“For Santa Barbara, we’ve taken some additional steps because of the unique geographical layout of Santa Barbara.”

Unlike other cities in Edison’s territory, the ocean, mountains and protected forests and waterways surround Santa Barbara, which has just two 220-kilovolt transmission lines supplying Santa Barbara, Goleta and Carpinteria with power.

The city’s three sub-transmission 66 kilovolt lines are also in areas susceptible to significant storm damage via flooding, landslides and more — all of which could cut the area off from Edison’s other lines.

“Typically, we have multiple points,” Grigaux said.

In addition to pre-storm preventative maintenance and expediting repairs, Edison reached an agreement to use NRG’s Ellwood Generating Station (50 megawatts) as backup if more electricity is needed.

Grigaux said the company could also operate its sub-transmission lines at an emergency limit (150 megawatts) and this month will have portable generators installed at substations like Goleta and Ortega to produce enough power for peak local demand, which is 250 megawatts between 6 to 9 p.m.

An Edison tower is anchored some 12 to 30 feet into the ground with concrete, according to the electricity provider. Click to view larger
An Edison tower is anchored some 12 to 30 feet into the ground with concrete, according to the electricity provider.  (Southern California Edison photo)

Because of previous stronger rainy seasons in 1998 and 2005, Edison is still working to complete its Santa Barbara County Reliability Project, which was stalled in a permitting process but should bring more power to the area by 2018.

Grigaux said most power failures this year were classified as “distribution outages” related to the local system, which could greatly benefit from the $12 million in upgrades Edison has planned specifically to improve service in downtown Santa Barbara.

He also wanted to clarify that while some electricity poles appear aesthetically weakened, the towers are actually being anchored 12 to 28 feet underground by concrete.

“Towers are very solid,” Grigaux said, noting one has never come down. “The integrity of the footing is not the concern or the issue. The concern is actually the erosion around the tower, how water can seep several feet beneath the tower.”

Local officials walked out of Edison’s meetings feeling a bit better about the coming El Niño, especially since command teams will be assigned to Santa Barbara before storms, said Ken Oplinger, president & CEO of Santa Barbara Chamber of Commerce.

None of the Edison team members live in Santa Barbara because it’s too expensive, Grigaux said, still classifying the employees as “locals.”

Edison gave a general education about power supply to 40 some business leaders and elected officials, but Oplinger said it failed to alleviate all concerns about downtown infrastructure. 

“There are lots of different things they’re doing that we felt pretty good about,” Oplinger said.

“I think there’s a hope going forward that there can be more discussions with Edison. They want to get up and show people they do want to provide.”

A sold-out crowd signed up for an Edison outage school this month, with another tentatively planned for Jan. 29.

Opal Restaurant owner Richard Yates said he came out of meetings with mixed feelings — slightly reassured that Edison was focusing on the most immediate threats to power failure but still bent on pressing for better service and communication with fellow downtown businesses. 

They talked so much about El Niño, Yates said, that they didn’t have time to address other questions from businesses that have lost hundreds of thousands due to unplanned outages.

“We are very concerned that with all the focus given to an emergency situation that once the window of emergency closes, the need to address the serious systemic issues afflicting our electrical infrastructure will be forgotten,” he said.

“If this happens, we will still be left with an unreliable electrical infrastructure, one that will pose risks to our financial and physical well-being and safety every bit as dangerous — over the long term — as the short–term danger posed by an extreme weather event such as El Niño.”

Grigaux said Edison would continue to collaborate with other agencies at the local, county and state levels to ensure residents have power, hinting that community support and more energy efficient practices could also play a role.

“It’s not going to take one set of solutions,” he said. “If we do in fact have an El Niño event … we will need to call out on the community to help conserve, specifically during peak times to help relieve the strain on the grid.”

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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