When Edison Kept Turning Off Their Power To Prevent Wildfires, The Small Town of Acton Fought Back
There’s no convenient time to lose power. But when it goes out on Thanksgiving Day, for some — that's just too much.
“You're just trying to be thankful for what you have and it’s just difficult when you're hunkered down in your house,” said Jeremiah Owen.
That's what happened last year in Acton, a rural town in north L.A. County that backs up against the San Gabriel Mountains. During the three-day outage, more than 100,000 households and businesses lost electricity in dozens of communities in high risk fire zones.
When the power is out, it’s nearly unlivable, said Owen, president of Acton Town Council.
Many houses are on 2.5-acre or larger lots that rely on electric pumps to get water from their wells. No power means no water to fill the water tank, and when that’s gone, the toilets won’t flush, and there’s no water for thirsty horses or livestock.
No lights or electric heat either.
As we toured the area in his pickup truck, Owen pointed out a cell phone tower. When the backup batteries run down, suddenly the internet and mobile phones don’t work, either — and people are cut off from the news and each other.
That happened during the Tick fire which broke out in the Santa Clarita Valley in 2019.
“A lot of our folks get cut off from communication.,” Owen said. “We had a lot of residents that had no idea what was going on, whether the fire was headed our way away from us.”
Before 2018, among California’s big investor-owned utilities, only San Diego Gas & Electric had a policy to cut power to customers on hot, dry and windy days as a fire prevention tactic, one that regulators at the California Public Utilities Commission had approved in 2012.
But after the December 2017 Thomas Fire and the Woolsey Fire the following year, Southern California Edison went to the PUC with the same request, and it was approved the following year.
The company said that climate change was creating hotter, drier and windier conditions that its power grid could not withstand, and that it wanted to use Public Safety Power Shutoffs as a last resort.
Its request was granted. In 2020 alone, there were almost 300 Public Safety Power Shutoff episodes across Edison’s five million customer service territory.
The utility had pulled the plug on Acton repeatedly, and while it was not the worst-hit community — that was an area of Chatsworth and Santa Clarita, with 17 shut-offs in just three months — its residents were increasingly fed up.
The officials had apologized, said they understood how disruptive the outages were, and set up a community aid station in Acton’s tiny town center that offered snacks, water and device charging services for future outages. The company also stressed that people needed to be resilient enough to get themselves through an outage from any cause, like a fire or earthquake.
But after the Thanksgiving outage, the disruptions to pandemic-era homeschooling, remote work, and the risk of people and livestock going without water finally became too great.
“So that really kind of set the stage for us getting involved,” Owen said.
Violating Basic Rights
The unpaid, volunteer members of the Acton Town Council looked into what they could do to fight back. After some research, they contended that Edison had violated two basic ratepayers’ rights, which date back to 1951.
One, that services and charges have to be just and reasonable. The other, that utilities operate in a safe, reliable and cost-effective manner. The outages, they felt, were none of these things.
As they dug deeper, they also discovered that regulators at the Public Utilities Commission were investigating outages being carried out by the state’s biggest investor-owned utilities, including Edison, PG&E and San Diego Gas & Electric.
The PUC was looking into whether the utilities were following the pre-existing rules for outages, and whether new rules were needed. At the same time, it was also drafting a parallel set of regulations for the utilities to follow as they worked to reduce the risk of their equipment causing fires.
Acton Town Council, representing the rural area’s 7,500 residents, decided to become an official party to all three proceedings. It was kind of an equalizer move — because now, it had the power to ask the giant utility questions and insist on answers.
It could also weigh in on any proposed new rules, in a way becoming the proxy voice for all the other small rural communities that had sustained multiple outages.
Specifically, the council wanted to know under what specific conditions Edison was shutting down the electricity on Acton’s four circuits.
Edison gives nicknames to its circuits, the groups of power wires that often serve hundreds of homes. Acton, an old mining town, is served by the Pick, the Shovel the Bootlegger and the Loucks.
The company came up with documents showing that power shutoffs were happening on Acton’s power circuits in moderate winds — just 20 to 30 miles per hour. That’s windy, but the National Weather Service uses 40 miles per hour as its threshold for “damaging” winds.
“We have discovery responses from Edison that states categorically they cut power on the Shovel circuit at lower wind speeds because their concern was that the equipment would sustain mechanical failure at higher wind speeds,” said Jacqueline Ayer, a trained engineer who was leading the Town Council's attempts to get answers.
This issue of mechanical failure — possibly from aging equipment — caught their attention. Especially items called P-2s.
Edison inspects its equipment and rates items that need immediate repair as Priority 1, or P-1.
P-2s — in high fire risk areas like Acton — must be repaired within six months.
Documents from Edison showed that Acton’s four power circuits had many P-2s at the time of the Thanksgiving outage.
“Hundreds of structures are high P2, which means a high chance of failing within six months to a year and in high winds six months,” Ayer said.
When Ayer saw those numbers, she concluded that Edison was cutting off the power because its Acton circuits were too fragile to withstand high winds.
The Shovel circuit was de-energized nine different times in 2020 alone, according to Edison’s list of circuits with frequent Public Safety Power Shutoffs. The Bootlegger circuit was shut off eight times, the Loucks, four times.
To Acton residents, the hundreds of P2 items felt urgent and deeply concerning. They wanted to know why those things had not been fixed.
Edison, however, takes a more relaxed view. It sees P-2s more like a warning light on a car dashboard, letting you know that some things need to be fixed right away, like worn tires, while other issues can be taken care of later.
“We start to see things that start to look like, you know, your brakes have this much left. So by the time you come in, that'll be a good time to change it. That's sort of how we look at Priority 2,” Erik Takayesu said, Edison's Vice President for Public Safety Power Shutoffs.
He said the high numbers of P-2s were not surprising, partly because the company had ramped up the frequency of inspections after the Woolsey and Thomas fires, from every three to five years, to once a year.
The amount of equipment rated P-2 “varies depending on how much inspection we've done,” Takayesu said. “So some circuits will have more than others, particularly. We're looking at our infrastructure quite frequently in these areas.”
I asked if Edison was up to date on its repair schedule.
“I'm not aware of us not being able to meet our compliance timelines,” Takayesu said.
He added that if it looked like Edison was at risk of not meeting its mandated repair schedule, it would call on additional personnel to bring things up to date.
However, Takayesu acknowledged that the number of P-2s and the overall condition of the power circuits do factor into Edison’s decision to trigger shutoffs — but that's only one part of a complex formula.
Another factor is sustained winds and wind gusts. While Acton residents were not happy about power being cut when winds were in the 20 to 30 mile per hour range, Takayesu said that such sustained moderate winds could quickly ramp up to damaging gusts of 40 mph or above. And that it's gusts, more than sustained winds, that can toss tree limbs into power equipment, causing fires.
Edison also takes into account where a particular power circuit falls on Edison’s own Fire Potential Index, a model that predicts how fast and far a utility-caused fire might spread. And workers on the ground, called “troublemen” who know the vulnerable spots in the local power grid, also weigh in on when to cut the power.
As for the length of power outages, Takayesu said that because dangerous windy conditions can exist in many different areas and power circuits, and it takes time to de-energize the power lines, some areas get shut off earlier than necessary.
The Town Council is still monitoring the PUC proceedings, and adding its voice to the discussion.
But Jacqueline Ayer said she wishes the company had been more transparent about the outages all along.
“What I'm disappointed by is that we have to go through this discovery process to get the details, when they really should be reported in the reports” provided to the public, Ayer said.
Ayer also criticized what she called Edison’s “steadfast refusal to recognize that PSPS creates public safety risks, and their stubborn belief that PSPS only provides public safety benefits. We have provided abundant and conclusive evidence of very real and very significant public safety dangers resulting from SCE's PSPS events.”
Acton’s pushback may have brought results.
As we drove back into Acton, Jeremiah Owen pointed to trucks and workers along the road.
“Here's Edison, they're actually doing some remedial work, it looks like, on these poles,” Owen said.
It has become a common sight in Acton: Linemen replacing the bare metal power lines with composite-covered wire, which is less likely to start fires.
Edison had already announced a multi-year plan to do this. But a few months ago, the company announced it was accelerating the work in Acton and 72 other areas which have had four or more public safety power shutoffs, including Santa Clarita, Simi Valley and Castaic.
Edison expects to finish Acton’s grid hardening work by October, and for the frequency of outages to go way down, just as fire season’s most dangerous winds kick in.