For the first time since the findings of an internal investigation into the power outages that left much of downtown Long Beach in the dark last July, representatives from Southern California Edison (SCE) went before the city council to provide explanations of what went wrong before the lights went out.
The report along with an outside audit conducted by Davies Consulting Group was previously made public in November, where the causes of the outages were identified as lack of oversight and cable failures. The Davies findings went further, stating that SCE “did not have processes in place to actively monitor and track equipment that was being operated abnormally.”
SCE Senior Vice President of Transmission and Distribution Pete Dietrich took personal responsibility for the outages of July 15 and July 30 that left thousands without power for days, before adding that improper operation of the network was also a contributing cause, aside from infrastructure failure.
“What we identified as the cause of the Long Beach power outages was improper operations and insufficient management oversight of the Long Beach network system,” Dietrich said. “While the system had been very reliable since the mid-1950s, in hindsight we saw a few mis-operations and mis-performances that caused the sequence of events that led to the outages that occurred July 15 and July 30.”
He attributed the failure to a lack of ownership and more thorough protocols in the operation of the network, but also to the training level of the SCE staff, something that Dietrich said is being addressed, along with the other recommendations noted in the report that are meant to enhance the network and try to ensure a large-scale outage doesn’t happen again.
Dietrich said the company had made strides toward meeting the 35 recommendations outlined in the November report, including tethering down manhole covers to prevent them flying into the air again, re-training staff on the intricacies of the network and improving the mapping of the network and equipment.
However, the idea that the human element was a large contributing force to the outages, and not the perceived age and repair of the downtown network was concerning for some. Fourth District Councilman Daryl Supernaw said he was surprised to learn it was management of the system and not hardware issues that sparked the outages.
“To me, it’s kind of a wake up call that this was the cause and not something else,” Supernaw said. “What worries me about that is that’s the kind of thing that can devolve over the years.”
Mayor Robert Garcia who has been critical of the SCE response and ongoing outage issues, applauded the utility company for taking full responsibility for the events that occurred over the summer but noted they still have work to do in repairing their reputation and trust with customers in the city. He urged them to continue outreach efforts to help rebuild that trust, while emphasizing their methods of communication need to improve drastically from what they were during the outages.
“The communication piece, which I thought was a complete failure during the crisis, needs to be strengthened,” Garcia said. “It sounds like you’re aware of that. I think the fact that myself and some other folks were the main form of getting information either through Twitter or through email is not acceptable. That’s something that is your guys’ job, to get information out to everybody, and we should be there to provide support and emergency response.”
What exactly was communicated during the presentation from Dietrich still had some members of the public questioning whether or not the company could confidently power the city, with one man pointing out the potential new strains placed on the power grid by the soon-to -be-constructed Civic Center project.
Gary Shelton, a resident of downtown who testified on the issues created by the outage before city elected officials and SCE staff at an August town hall meeting, said he was still not satisfied with what the root causes were identified as. Shelton said the people who were affected by the outages deserved to know what exactly happened.
“Did something melt, did something overheat, did something cause gasses to blow up?” Shelton asked. “I live about one hundred feet from where the first manhole cover flew into the air and was leaving under yellow tape to go to your city meeting with police telling us ‘watch out, you’ve gotta go that way, there’s other manhole covers going up into the air.’ Something was going on besides ‘improper management and operation of the system.’”
SCE’s presentation comes just months before an anticipated report from the California Public Utility Commission (CPUC)—one that was demanded by local state senate and assembly members—that may possibly shed more light on what led to the summer power outages.