Southern California Edison says keeping the lights on in the service corridor running from Ventura to Santa Barbara is a top priority. Area merchants are saying it’s about time the utility company started paying attention.
Rosemead-based Edison announced Jan. 29 that it has plans to upgrade several distribution circuits along the Highway 101 corridor, with many of the improvements focusing on the downtown Santa Barbara area. Edison made the announcement following a series of outages late last year that had several business owners fed up with the power company.
Those affected by the outages, many of them bars and restaurants, claimed the recurring outages were taking a financial toll on their businesses. At the height of business owners’ frustration, several establishments banded together to circulate a petition demanding that SCE address the situation immediately.
SCE spokeswoman Rondi Guthrie told the Business Times the utility’s announcement is part of an ongoing series of improvements designed to bolster transmission and power reliability from the west side of Ventura to Carpinteria, Santa Barbara and beyond. The upgrades are not necessarily a direct response to the petition from disgruntled business owners, she said.
“A lot of these projects have been in the works from planning last year,” Guthrie said. “We are constantly out working and maintaining the grid.”
Utility services in the Tri-Counties are split between Edison, which services Ventura and South Santa Barbara counties, and PG&E, which services North Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties.
The PG&E area benefits from close proximity to power generation from the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant and large solar energy projects in North SLO County. Edison has struggled to increase power generation capacity in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties.
The first of Edison’s planned improvements is installing underground switches at Castillo Street and West Cabrillo Boulevard near the Santa Barbara Harbor and across the street from Santa Barbara City College.
The new switches will allow the utility ompany to energize and de-energize segments of circuits so crews can more safely perform grid maintenance, Edison said. The installation will also help to isolate and minimize any potential repair outages to a smaller area. That work started on Jan. 30.
Edison’s work in Santa Barbara County includes the reconstruction of existing 66 kilo-volt sub-transmission facilities between its Santa Clara substation in Ventura County and its Carpinteria substation. The company plans to modify utility equipment within the Santa Clara, Goleta, Getty, Casitas, Ortega, Isla Vista, Santa Barbara and Carpinteria substations.
This also includes the installation of fiber optic telecommunications equipment to monitor and control sub-transmission and substation equipment. Edison said it expects these projects to be complete by the second quarter of 2016.
Guthrie said there are some shorter-range projects that are expected to be complete in the first and second quarters of 2015, some directly focusing on enhancing reliability for downtown merchants.
“We’re really looking at a long term strategy for the distribution network in Santa Barbara,” she said. “We’re currently analyzing data for last year’s outages to look at equipment and upgrades downtown. We did over 800 projects in the city of Santa Barbara last year. There really isn’t one thing we can point to for the problems. It’s a large network.”
In 2008, the average Santa Barbara district customer experienced 6.3 sustained power outages (longer than five minutes) and was without power for a cumulative 535.5 minutes. According to Edison’s most recent reliability report those numbers shrunk to 0.70 and 82, respectively in 2013.
Edison Public Affairs Director Cathy Hart said recently the utility has so far replaced 57,682 feet of circuit cable, 266 power poles, and 159 transformers in the Santa Barbara area. Hart also said the company tripled the investment in its system-wide infrastructure replacement program to $20 billion since 2013.
In SCE’s 2014 reliability report, almost 62 percent of blackouts in the company’s system in 2013 were attributed to equipment failure and just under 7 percent were caused by fire and weather. Animals accounted for nearly 10 percent.
In the petition urging SCE to jump to action in Santa Barbara, public safety, the economic well-being of employees and the financial stability of the downtown businesses were the main concerns.
Fueled by the anger of the massive outage on Oct. 2, the petition’s authors said their businesses are “actively threatened by these increasing outages” and that the blanket explanation of equipment failure isn’t enough for the utility to stand behind.
For business owners like Matt Wallace who owns 33 Jewels at 814 State St., the outages are a big security issue. “Basically we have to lock doors as soon as power goes out and when it happens we can’t be sure about whether to stay open or close,” Wallace said.
In the past when the lights went out, the store that often has tens of thousands of dollars worth of jewelry on site, hired an armed guard to keep watch during the day.
While Wallace admits his financial losses during an outage are not the same as one of neighboring restaurants or theaters, his concern is for the safety of his employees.
“It’s not like we’re a restaurant and we’re losing hundreds of customers, but it’s definitely a security issue,” he said. “It’s also kind of an embarrassment for the city too when everything goes dark and suddenly the downtown turns into a ghost town and tourists are walking up and down the street with nothing to do.”
For Wallace Edison’s, announcement that it’s working toward improving reliability downtown is encouraging, but taken with a grain of salt. “It’s good that they seem to be responding,” he said “I hope they can fix their failing infrastructure.”