In the dark – You, me, and SCE

By Ashley Fike
Kern Valley Sun

Kern River Valley residents received notices last week about potential Public Safety Power Shutoffs (PSPS), again raising questions about preparedness.

Starting in the middle of last week, Lake Isabella and Bodfish customers of Southern California Edison (SCE) received emails, texts and phone calls that SCE was exploring the option of a PSPS due to elevated wildfire conditions for the following days. Notices to residents in Wofford Heights, Kernville, Weldon and Onyx followed. No PSPS was implemented as of press time.

According to SCE, a PSPS is a practice that allows the utility to turn off power to an area that they feel is experiencing “extreme and potentially dangerous weather conditions” to avoid wildfires. The company uses the California Public Utility Commission’s (CPUC) Fire-Threat Map to label Tier 2 and 3 areas, which are elevated risk and extreme risk, respectively. The Kern River Valley is a Tier 3 area.

The map was developed with input from the U.S. Forest Service, California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) and California investor-owned utilities, including SCE.
The National Weather Service issues Red Flag Warnings for extreme weather conditions for elevated fire risk, and SCE’s in-house meteorologists, fire scientist, Fire Potential Index, and local personnel determine the criteria for a PSPS.

SCE says that they intend to start notifying customers of a PSPS about 48 hours in advance with a reminder 24 hours before power is shut off. However, because weather is unpredictable, notifications may not come so far in advance.

Determining the safety of restored power depends on two steps. First, extreme weather conditions triggering the shutoff must return to safe levels. Second, ground and aerial patrols must investigate affected areas for debris and other hazards to ensure that the power can safely be restored. SCE confirmed that additional crews would be brought into the area to assist in this process.
The process can only be completed as conditions allow, which means that if a PSPS occurs later in the day and patrols lose visibility, power may be restored the next day. Overall, the duration of a PSPS is entirely dependent on conditions and is therefore unpredictable.

While SCE has not yet had to conduct a PSPS as of press time, they confirm that the practice is the “new normal” because of changing weather and elevated fire risks.

“Turning off power to our customers is not something we take lightly,” said SCE in a written release. “Our commitment to deliver reliable electric service is something we take very seriously. This practice is aimed at keeping the public, our customers and our employees safe.”

Grocery stores and restaurants may be affected as well. Kern County Public Health offers guidelines for proper food storage and unsafe conditions for preparing and storing food during a power outage. The department notes that power outages of less than 2 hours are not considered hazardous to food as long as it is held under safe conditions.

However, loss of hot water, water pressure and the lack of adequate light to prepare food are all factors that would cause many businesses to shut down during a PSPS according to the requirements of the health department.

Claims to SCE can be made for perishable items, but these claims are evaluated on a case by case basis.

Cal Water customers in Lake Isabella also received a notice of a potential PSPS from Cal Water, another utility that depends on electricity.

Cal Water Local Manager Jon Yasin says that the district has been preparing for such an event by installing permanent generators at critical stations as well as bringing in portable backup generators that can be moved according to need. Yasin says that additionally, Cal Water has personnel statewide ready to mobilize to support the local area should an outage affect a large number of customers or become prolonged.

“Similar to how our Customer Support Services Office and other Cal Water district teams assisted our local crews during the Erskine Fire,” says Yasin.

“At Cal Water, we take providing a reliable supply of safe, high-quality water to our customers very seriously,” he continued. “That includes during Public Safety Power Shutoffs, which can stretch any utility’s operations. We are working closely with SCE and local agencies within Kern County for notifications of potential Public Safety Power Shutoffs within the Kern River Valley region and statewide, so that we’re ready to act if and when the time comes.”

For more information from utilities on how to prepare for a PSPS, visit the following sites:
Southern California Edison: https://www.sce.com/safety/wildfire/psps
Cal Water: https://www.calwater.com/psps