The timing couldn’t have been much worse for Southern California Edison. Just a few days before company managers were scheduled to update the Santa Barbara City Council on efforts to repair the downtown power grid following a yearlong spate of blackouts, Chapala Street went dark during the Friday evening dinner rush. Restaurants emptied, traffic crept through lightless intersections, and firefighters rescued 10 shoppers from Macy’s elevators.
This Tuesday’s council presentation marked six months since Edison, prompted by organized pressure from business owners and city officials, pledged to spend $12 million improving Santa Barbara’s aging electric system. District Manager Alicia Pillado said that so far Edison has replaced a number of vaults, put the Modoc substation back in service, created circuit ties, and replaced switches, among other projects. New transformers will soon be put in, she said, and automation systems installed.
Downtown Santa Barbara has experienced four unplanned outages in 2015 to date, Pillado explained. Three of those occurred along the same circuit, and two lasted approximately 24 hours. During Fiesta celebrations, Mayor Helene Schneider stated, an overburdened line nearly killed power for blocks. “Wow,” she said. “That really could have been quite a situation.”
Santa Barbara ranked among the worst performing of Edison’s 35 coverage districts in 2014 in terms of outage frequency and duration, records show. Since 2009, it has often fallen in the bottom 10. Equipment failure accounted for nearly 60 percent of blackouts last year. Councilmembers iterated more than once that the South Coast is at the end of Edison’s transmission line, and that the city’s 50-plus-year-old underground infrastructure is crumbling at an accelerating rate.
To address those concerns, Pillado said Edison is in the process of deciding on and implementing a “long-term reliability” project that would drastically improve the downtown grid. Edison is reviewing four possible plans of attack, she said. Two would involve “a lot of impact for a long time,” meaning large amounts of construction and long-term street closures. Final cost estimates were not yet available.
Schneider asked at what point the city would be able to offer its druthers on what plan is chosen. Pillado responded that the final decision is up to Edison and Santa Barbara would only be informed after that fact, but that city staff could provide feedback on the phasing of the work, whether it would take 3-5 years or 5-10 years. Construction isn’t scheduled to begin until 2017, she said. Schneider requested that staff be part of the discussions before the choice was made.
Councilmember Bendy White expressed worry that no one at City Hall seems to have a firm grasp of the ins and outs of Santa Barbara’s electrical system. The downtown outages are just a piece of the puzzle, he said, “and we don’t know how big the puzzle is. … We’ve got some real deficits here.” White said he noticed a lack of transparency between Edison and the city. Ongoing communication, and more of it, would go a long way in solving the problem, he said.
Jerry Brown with the World Business Academy, a Santa Barbara–based think tank promoting renewable energy sources, spoke about Santa Barbara’s pressing need for local energy generation. He touted microgrid and storage systems that harness solar power and highlighted the South Coast’s “vulnerable” connection to the rest of the state.
Attached as an appendix to a 2014 presentation to the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), Edison describes “reliability concerns” with the two 220-kilovolt transmission lines that snake from its Santa Clara node to Goleta. Both lines run along towers located in terrain where landslides can be caused “by heavy rainfall (e.g. 1997-98 El Niño condition) and frequent fires,” the report says.
Should one of those towers fall or the lines otherwise be compromised, more than 80,000 South County customers would lose power until emergency sources kicked in, but such backup would not be enough to carry the area’s full load. “Long term outages could occur for several weeks” as repairs were made in inaccessible backcountry, Edison stated.
The utility is awaiting approval from the CPUC to begin replacing and retrofitting its backup lines and systems, including the “peaker plant” in Goleta, which is described by its operators as a land-based, water-cooled jet engine that turns on during peak hours. That overall project is expected to cost more than $51 million.