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State Regulators Complain Edison Relies Too Much On Outages To Prevent Fires

The downtown skyline seen behind high tension towers from the East 4th street bridge along the L.A. river. (Photo by APU GOMES/AFP via Getty Images) APU GOMES/AFP via Getty Images
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Southern California families found themselves serving turkey in the dark on Thanksgiving Day last year after Southern California Edison cut power to thousands of homes with very little advance notice.

More outages were imposed by Edison during the red flag fire danger days falling between Christmas and New Year’s Day. In all, Edison cut off power sixteen times to nearly 80,000 customers across its five million customer base during 2020.

These public safety power shutoffs are supposed to be used only as a last resort, to keep the utility’s aging equipment from causing wildfires during hot, dry and windy weather.

On Tuesday, the state regulators, the California Public Utilities Commission, said Edison was using shutoffs too often and with too little consideration of the public harm they cause.

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“Every time the utility shuts off the power, it is trading off the safety and immediate well-being of its customers to mitigate the risk of igniting a wildfire,” Commission President Maribel Batjer said during the public hearing.

Utilities’ financial liability for causing fires can be very high. Last week, Edison agreed to pay more than $2 billion to settle damage claims stemming from two of California’s most destructive fires: the 2018 Woolsey Fire that tore through Malibu, and the 2017 Thomas fires in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, as well as the subsequent mud flows that killed 23 people and wrecked dozens of homes in Montecito.

Batjer said Edison’s use of shutoffs was often “tactless,” marked by contradictory and confusing messages to customers. The outages disrupted business and medical offices, as well as families working and studying at home during the pandemic. She said that the shutoffs in 2019 were dismal and little improved in 2020.

The regulators said the company needs to improve the transparency of its decision-making and speed up its communications about shutoffs to the commission and local officials such as police and fire departments. Those departments often had to manage traffic and other emergency situations exacerbated by the outages.

A number of Edison executives apologized to the commission for the disruptions and failed communications.

At the same time, they have repeatedly said that customers have a responsibility to be ready for outages of all kinds, including from storms and earthquakes.


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