It’s been a bit more than a month since a string of winter storms left many area residents without power for as long as several days, and about three weeks since an online community forum organized by the Hancock Park Homeowners Association and the Windsor Square Association on March 7 left many local residents hungry for more information from LADWP on what went wrong and how both power and information systems can be improved moving forward.
On Wednesday, March 22, a similar online conversation was held for residents of Los Angeles City Council District 4, where areas such as the Hollywood Hills, Los Feliz, and others also experienced extended power outages during the February storms. And this time LADWP did provide some more specific information on its workflow and information systems, how the systems were overwhelmed during the recent storms, and how LADWP can improve its performance in the future.
The CD 4 forum was structured as a question and answer session between City Councilmember Nithya Raman and Brian Wilbur, LADWP’s Senior Assistant General Manager, Power System Construction, Maintenance & Operations. This is a summary Raman’s questions and Wilbur’s answers; the full 90-minute discussion is available at the link above.
Can you tell us what happened, why there were so many power outages, and what challenges the DWP faced in dealing with them?
Wilbur said DWP’s system is “very resilient” in the normal range of use, but not for the magnitude of rain and wind we’ve had this year. And the problems tend to come in two places, he said – locations where powerline vaults are underground (where they can’t drain and dry out as quickly as above-ground connections), and places with lots of trees that can fall on power lines. Also, Wilbur said, the sustained string of storms this year didn’t allow for full repairs between each of the many damaging storms.
This was described as a “Level 3” event. What does that mean?
Wilbur said a “Level 1” event results in power outages of 4-12 hours, a “Level 2” event creates outages from 12-24 hours, and a “Level 3” event brings outages more than 24 hours long. It also strains LADWP resources because of both the number of outages, and the size of the areas where the outages are occurring.
Where are outages the worst?
Wilbur said that when extreme heat causes power outages, the biggest problem areas are usually in the San Fernando Valley. And when high winds are the major culprit, it’s the areas – such as East LA – that have the most palm trees and falling palm fronds. But when there’s a combination of rain and high winds, as in our most recent storms, Wilbur said the biggest problems tend to be in the areas with the heaviest tree canopies, such as Los Feliz, the Hollywood Hills, and Hancock Park.
People heard that not all LADWP crews were deployed during the outages – can you tell us why all employees weren’t working at any given time?
Wilbur said that if you deploy all 200 LADWP crews during the first 16 hours of an event like this, then they all go home when their shifts end, and you wind up with no one working for many hours. So to avoid those gaps, LADWP staggers shifts, so only 80 crews are on duty at any given time, but there are always some crews working somewhere around the clock. He said all LADWP employees – including permanent staff, contractors, and “non-essential” personnel – were definitely working as much as possible during the storms, but the Department needs to make sure there are new crews ready to come on duty when others are ready to go home.
These storms and outages were reportedly similar to those we experienced in 2017. What did LADWP learn from the 2017 storms?
Wilbur said all new power poles installed since 2017 are now “wind-loaded,” to withstand gusts up to 85 miles per hour. Also, in addition to the crew-rotation strategy described above, Wilbur said the Department knows better now what kinds of personnel will be needed during these kinds of storms. For example, he said, DWP now keeps tree removal crews on standby when a storm is coming, rather than waiting for reports of fallen trees, which helps them respond faster.
During the outages, there was little information available about where power was out, and for how many people…and much of the information was inaccurate and/or contradictory. In some cases LADWP said there were no outages reported, estimates of when power would be restored were inaccurate, and there were no follow-up emails when people did submit reports. What caused these communications problems?
Wilbur said he is, in general, proud of the work DWP did during the storms, “but in other aspects we failed miserably.” He said getting information to the public was the biggest problem of all – in short, “Our system is not as able to respond when multiple outages come in.” He said the Department encourages people to call and report outages, but when the calls are too numerous, it overwhelms the system. This is partially because outage reports aren’t officially tallied until a DWP employee investigates and verifies the report, which takes much longer when there are so many calls coming in. He said the process does eventually provide the true number of outages, but it can take a while. Meanwhile, he said, there’s also an algorithm that calculates how many adjacent outages may be related to each call, but that system, too, gets overwhelmed when too many calls come in at the same time…and not all the outages are accurately reflected on the Department’s outage maps.
Wilbur said DWP does need a better way to provide accurate information to customers while crews are still out in the field, assessing and responding to outages, and the best way to improve it would be to add more personnel to update the various information channels while the crews are still working. “That’s a big lesson learned,” Wilbur said.
What is the best way to report outages?
Wilbur said the LADWP website is currently the best way to report outages, because it doesn’t overwhelm the department’s phone lines.
How can people know if LADWP is aware of an outage if it doesn’t appear on the Department’s outage map?
Wilbur said that, unfortunately, they won’t know, especially when there are a lot of small outages.
Also, he explained that LADWP prioritizes repairs differently for heat-related and rain-related outages, based on the relative danger to public safety. In an extreme heat event, Wilbur said, the length of an outage is the biggest public safety concern, so crews work first in areas where the power’s been out the longest. But with rain, he said, the biggest hazard is downed power lines, so that’s where repair crews go first. (And 85% if the recent outages, he said, were caused by fallen trees.) Then, after the downed power lines are taken care of, Wilbur said, the next priority is the areas with the most widespread outages, affecting the largest number of people…and then the areas where power has been out the longest.
How can you restore people’s trust in the system?
Wilbur said the “number one quick solution,” as mentioned above, would be to get more people on board — so they can have more staff in the call centers, and more people to act as liaisons between the call centers and crews working in the field. He said they could also use more of their non-essential personnel to follow crews in the field and report information back to the Department. In short, he said, they simply need more people to do all of this manual work until various electronic systems can be updated and automated.
Can you make these improvements right now, immediately, before the next big storm?
“Yes, I can say that I am definitely confident that [information] will be much more accurate,” Wilbur said. Although he added, “I’m not going to say it will be a perfect solution. But it will certainly be a step in the right direction to help the communications.”
What about more long-term fixes?
Distribution automation systems, and automated metering, Wilbur said, are two future improvements that will make make LADWP’s information more reliable, and should help shrink outage areas when the power does go out. He said they will start first with building new communications systems, including installing fiber optic lines between power stations to get better information, and adding live sensors that provide better information from various systems. (He said the current system does have some sensors, but they give fairly limited information.) The other technology that will help, Wilbur said, is new “smart” power meters, which will also provide outage data to the department. These are the next steps, he said, in providing more (and more accurate) information about what’s happening, where, and helping to reduce outage issues.
If you can start adding personnel immediately, what’s the schedule for the automation improvements?
Those updates, Wilbur said, are “still in their infancy,” and will happen over the next 3-10 years.
Where were the biggest outages this time?
Wilbur said that in the beginning, the biggest outages were in Del Rey, Van Nuys, and Valley Village. But then Hollywood Hills, Studio City, Jefferson Park, and others soon joined them. He said there were a total of 211,279 power outages in the late-February storms, peaking at 84,000 customers without power during the night of Saturday, February 25. And those numbers were similar to the 2017 outages.
Were response times better than in 2017?
Yes, Wilbur said. DWP got more people back online faster this time, with most regaining power in less than 24 hours.
Who’s responsible for trimming trees, and is there a proactive plan for tree trimming?
Wilbur said trees are definitely a “sensitive topic,” and LADWP does trim trees away from power lines annually, using trimmers who are also certified electric workers (unlike the other city tree trimmers). They also have a database of all trees, and use growth charts and other tools to help determine where trimming may be needed, as well as guidelines for minimum clearances allowed between trees and powerlines (which differ with different kinds of lines). He said, though, that the city crews only trim city trees, and only trim them to the state-required distances from power lines. They do not trim trees on private property, though they will notify homeowners if they see issues with trees on private property.
Are the power line clearance requirements the same for both city and private property?
Yes, said Wilbur.
Do you trim just based on a specific planning schedule, or do you also respond to homeowner alerts about possibly hazardous trees?
Wilbur said both are used. Residents can call 1-800-DialDWP to report concerns about trees and power lines. But it’s worth noting that required clearances for power lines and phone lines are different, so people should be aware of that.
Residents can also tell their City Council Office about dangerous trees. Does putting power lines underground help with the tree issues?
Wilbur said cost is the big issue with underground power lines. They’re “much more expensive than overhead systems,” about $15,000 per foot to install, which adds up to about $15 million per mile. And “the impact of that to our ratepayers is astronomical.” Also, he said, underground power systems are especially challenging in hilly areas, where landslides can be very harmful to them. Finally, while overhead wires can be strung up and down hillsides very easily, underground power lines have to follow the path of a neighborhood’s streets, so that adds length and additional receiving stations to the layout.
What about using things like cement power poles and guardrails to prevent cars from toppling poles?
Wilbur said steel poles are actually a better alternative, and LADWP does replace a lot of wood poles with steel…though it’s harder to do with poles on the property lines of private property, because it’s hard to get the larger equipment needed to install steel poles into people’s yards.
How can we make our neighborhoods more resilient when it comes to power?
Wilbur said we need to look at the amount of money we’re putting into hardening the system – especially things like replacing poles, lines, and other systems.
How much are we spending annually on that now?
According to Wilbur, LADWP is spending more than $5 billion just to “harden” the system and improve reliability. That includes replacing poles, crossarms, and more. Also, in the next year, in high-fire areas, he said they’ll be adding “abrasion-proof” wire that’s stronger and more resistant to interference from trees.
How will we know which neighborhoods are receiving this kind of investment and what to expect, and when?
Wilbur said that in high-fire threat zones, they’re targeting every pole and every primary wire…and since those are also often the areas with the most trees, there will be multiple benefits to hardening that system. For the rest of the city, he said, the goal is to upgrade 4,000 poles a year, plus 1,200 transformers, and many miles of wire and spans of underground cables. He said this will give us “the most bang for the buck” in improving resiliency.
What kind of preparation should people who have been affected by the outages do to prepare for the future? Should everyone get generators? That seems challenging for our air quality issues, but if it’s something people should do, we need advice on what to buy, how to install them, and how to maintain them.
When it comes to generators, Wilbur said, there is information on the LADWP website, but he hates to recommend any specific brand or product. And deciding whether you need a generator or just a lot of flashlights and candles is “a very personal thing.” Our outage numbers have improved through the years, Wilbur said, but storms will still come, and may continue to get worse…so he urged everyone to be prepared for power to be out longer from time to time, and to stock up on things like blankets, coolers, and other supplies.
Everyone wants to hear it will get better, so we don’t have to prepare as much. But that’s not the answer we’re getting. Climate change is getting worse, and we’re grappling with it…but we want to hear that DWP is also grappling with it and will do more as a system even as residents take on the challenge.
Wilbur said DWP is doing better, especially with its tree-trimming program over the last five years, and its more recent pole and vault inspection systems (they now have three times more people doing that work than they used to).
We’ve heard that some apartment residents have been told they can’t report a power issue if their name isn’t on the LADWP bill for the property. Is that true?
Wilbur confirmed that if you don’t have an LADWP account, you can’t report outages online…but you can report them via phone.
Can you change the online system?
Wilbur said he doesn’t have that information, but will commit to addressing it with the outage management system. And he said it sounds like an easy fix.
Can there be some sort of emergency alert system for neighbors when the power goes out?
Wilbur said there’s nothing like the well-known Amber Alert system (for missing children), but there the city does have some kind of alert system and they can look into whether it can be used.
Is there any effort to do an assessment of LADWP’s response to these issues, and to fix its accountability?
Wilbur said the LADWP Commission has asked for this kind of report, and for responses to specific action items…and the City Council’s Energy and Environment Committee has also requested similar information. [Raman was a co-sponsor, with fellow Councilmembers Katy Yaroslavsky and Hugo Soto-Martinez, of the motion making this request.]
Does LADWP allow outage reports via text message?
Wilbur said he does not have information about that kind of reporting, but can check on it and report back on whether it exists, and how it might or might not tie into other information systems.
How can those who are reliant on various kinds of medical devices – especially the elderly – prepare for future outages?
Wilbur said they should register their reliance on life support, or other specific need for power, with the DWP. Those people are marked on distribution maps, and they will get a knock on their door when the power goes out, or other communication, to see if they’re OK.
How do you register, and will people in other city departments know about their needs?
Wilbur said he doesn’t know of a central citywide registry, for multiple departments, but people with medical or other special needs for power can register on the LADWP website, or in person at an LADWP service center (the same places you can go to pay your bills). He said he would provide more specific information to Raman’s office later.
Why does power go out so often in hillside neighborhoods? Losing power eight or nine times in three years, for more than 24 hours, feels excessive.
Wilbur said there are lots of complications in hillside areas, including the number of distribution stations, length of circuits, and trees…which cause about 90% of the problems in hillside areas. In fact, he said, tree-related repairs often take much longer than others – from 12 to 16 hours to de-energize the line, remove the tree, and rebuild the electrical infrastructure – so it’s not a matter of crew size, just the fact that these kinds of repairs take longer. “I beg people for their patience, and [to] have an understanding of the amount of work that’s involved…that’s mainly the reason that a lot of these outages are so long.”
Raman closed the session by thanking Wilbur for his time, but also urging his further action. “I am really impatient for change and I know residents of Council District 4 are as well,” she said. “We’re here to partner with you, to work with you, and to push you…and I’m going to make sure we’re delivering on some of these immediate changes. I want to make sure that we’re communicating about these changes, or upcoming changes…and I want to make sure that we’re letting people know exactly what they need in order to be able to move forward.”
Wilbur responded by thanking both Raman and the Laurel Canyon Neighborhood Council, which he said has been “extremely supportive and helpful” in working with his Department on the power outage issues. “I am very open for change, and am very much a proponent of change to help this,” said Wilbur.
To report power outages and/or sign up for outage alerts, see ladwp.com/outages. (You can also report outages by phone at 1-800-DialDWP or 1-800-342-5397.)
To sign up for the City of Los Angeles’ Notify LA emergency alert system, see https://emergency.lacity.gov/blog/emergency-alerts-sign-notifyla.