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SoCal Edison could see more power line shutoffs due to prevalent fire conditions

A Southern California Edison sign outside the San Onofre Nuclear Plant.
A Southern California Edison sign outside the San Onofre Nuclear Plant.
Grant Slater/KPCC

Pacific Gas and Electric announced a new policy this week. As part of a larger plan to increase wildfire safety, the Northern California utility will shut off power lines in areas experiencing "extreme fire conditions."

PG&E's new policy has implications for how utilities may operate in the southern part of the state. To find out more, Take Two's A Martinez spoke to Southern California Edison's Vice President of Transmission and Distribution, Phil Harrington. 

Harrington said shutting off power lines is a strategy utilities have been using for years to help prevent wildfires, but he expects there will be more shutoffs in the future since wildfire conditions are becoming more common.

In December 2017, SoCal Edison shut off power lines in the Idyllwild area, and Harrington said this was a good example of the kind of conditions that can make a shutoff necessary.

First of all we're looking at red flag warnings, so those are conditions of elevated fire threats. Other conditions that go into that of course are humidity, expected winds and conditions on the circuit that we'll consider [when deciding] whether or not we want to de-energize a line.

When preventative shutoffs do happen, Harrington said the utility tries to give customers as much advanced notice as possible, especially when customers have medical equipment like oxygen devices that run off electrical power in their homes.

Shutting off power is a last resort for the utility, Harrington said, but it does become necessary in certain situations.

These are balanced decisions. There are many factors that go into a decision on whether to shut off a customer or not, and at the end of the analysis, it is essentially a judgment call. As a system operator, we're trying to make the best decision we can with safety of our customers and communities first and foremost.

There are other tools that SoCal Edison has to help prevent fires, related to procedures and how equipment is built, Harrington said.

Circuit design of course for one thing. We have standards for pole design. Circuits in high fire areas we have a way that we actually make those circuits less likely to cause a fire by not re-energizing if they do trip. We have very aggressive vegetation management, so clearing away brush from our lines.

SoCal Edison is involved in ongoing lawsuits alleging that its equipment could have contributed to the recent Thomas fire. Harrington said he could not comment on the litigation.