Since last spring, after a devastating winter storm season left many parts of the city, including large swaths of Hancock Park, Windsor Square, and Larchmont Village without power for extended periods of time, both city council members and local residents have pressured LADWP to improve both power grid reliability and customer communications.
In March, Councilmembers Katy Yaroslavsky, Hugo Soto-Martinez, and Nithya Raman introduced a motion asking LADWP to study what went wrong with the city’s power system and communications last winter, and to report back with both explanations and plans for improvements. Last week, the DWP did just that with a presentation to the City Council’s Energy and Environment Committee on December 8, detailing how it has spent more than $830 million so far this year on infrastructure improvements, operational changes, and communications upgrades.
Equipment and Infrastructure
Simon Zewdu, LADWP’s Power System Senior Assistant General Manager, told the committee that first, LADWP has been working hard to strengthen the city’s power system to make it more reliable during extreme weather events.
This includes improvements to substations, transformers, poles, underground and overhead conductors, and distribution equipment.
Also, since falling trees and tree limbs were a major cause of downed power lines and power outages in last year’s storms, LADWP is now doing more proactive trimming of customer-owned trees that are too close to power lines. Either LADWP crews or customers can now notify the department when they see branches too close to the lines, and DWP maintenance crews will trim them back at least 18 inches from the lines, or even more, depending on what kind of tree it is and how fast it grows.
Other kinds of inspections and maintenance have increased, too, Zewdu said, including weekly inspections of “all underground vault locations that have the tendency to collect water,” to help prevent equipment failures from flooding.
Staffing and Operations
Next, said Zewdu, LADWP has been increasing staffing in several ways, as well as improving the way it deploys crews for better maintenance and faster responses when power outages occur. This includes several kinds of specialized teams such as:
- Overhead line crews
- Cable splicing crews
- Underground cable installation crews
- Tree trimming crews
- Electric trouble dispatchers
- Line patrol mechanics
- and electrical craft helpers.
Zewdu said LADWP will also hire additional contract crews to speed up replacement of deteriorated power poles and crossarms, and it will proactively schedule staggered 16-hour crew shifts before major storms (to avoid work disruptions due to shift changes). It is also working out mutual aid agreements with utilities in nearby cities such as Burbank and Pasadena, for times when even more help is needed.
Finally, Zewdu said one of LADWP’s biggest achievements this year was the launch of a new Department Operations Center, which can be activated in emergency situations, and which also – during non-emergency periods – conducts tabletop exercises to test possible department responses to various kinds of extreme events.
The DOC, Zewdu said, makes sure that each group within LADWP has a defined role to play in a crisis, can respond in a coordinated manner when emergencies occur, and can more efficiently cooperate with other city agencies.
So far this year, said Zewdu, the DOC has already been activated three times, including for a three-day period when Hurricane Hilary hit in August.
The third area where Zewdu said LADWP has been focusing its time and resources this year is communications, divided into three “buckets” – pre-event communications (so customers are well informed before a storm or planned outage occurs and know what kinds of precautions they should take), communications during power outages (including the cause of the outage, whether or not crews are working on repairs yet, and more accurate estimates of repair times and outage durations), and post-event communications.
In general, Zewdu said, when an outage occurs, the department will now assign a Special Projects Team to verify information about the incident, designate a point person for inquiries about the problem, generate email reports, and distribute information about the incident to customers via email, texts, social media posts, and website updates.
Another big communications improvement, Zewdu said, is a re-vamped LADWP outage map. The online map is now more dynamic that it was before, and shows more real-time information, including more specific outage locations, whether or not repair crews have been assigned and/or are working yet, and more accurate estimates of the time until power is restored. Users can also choose which of these items to show on the map, and circles representing individual outages on the map are sized to represent the number of customers affected, to provide a more graphic representation of the extent and severity of the problem.
Zewdu said that while LADWP’s old outage map, used during last year’s storms, did contain estimated repair times, most incidents were just given a standard 3-4-hour designation, which was based more on the number of outages at the time than the specific details of each outage. And that meant that some incidents took less time to fix than was estimated, while others took much longer – sometimes up to three days or more.
Zewdu said that previously, outages were mapped before crews even visited the site to assess the problem and the specific kinds of repairs needed. But there are big differences, he said, in repair times for something like a single downed power line vs. multiple fallen trees entangled with multiple power lines, which can affect the complexity and duration of repairs. But now, he said, special assessment teams will report specific incident information – such as location and the cause of an outage – directly from the outage site, in real time, and it will appear on the outage map as it’s reported. So customers will get much more timely and accurate data, and it can be updated in real time as repair work at the site progresses.
Finally, Zewdu said, having more accurate data on the maps should also help reduce the number of customer phone calls to LADWP about outages, which will, in turn, cut down the time customers have to wait on hold for their calls to be answered. Zewdu said hold times of 2-3 minutes might be OK, but during last year’s storms, hold times were more like 20 minutes or more, which is not acceptable.
Similarly, Zewdu said LADWP’s upgraded water outage map now provides notices to the public within one hour of an outage. Most water main breaks will be fixed within 12-24 hours he said, but during extended outages, crews may be able to restore service faster by temporarily tying into another nearby water main or providing bottled water, so customers are not left without water service for uncomfortably long periods of time.
Meanwhile, in addition to the map improvements, Zewdu said the utility will also be sending out more frequent communications to customers about power outages, including interim messages during repairs. (Previously, he acknowledged, customers were often told when outages were reported, and then informed again when power was restored, but it was rare to receive any information between those two communications.)
LADWP customers (those who have an individual meter and account number) can subscribe to text notifications through the LADWP website, but LADWP will also be posting the same information on NextDoor, X (formerly Twitter), and the LADWP website, where no account is needed to read them. That will be especially helpful for the city’s many renters, most of whom do not have individual LADWP accounts, so won’t be able to subscribe to the text alerts.
Finally, Zewdu said the website alerts will also include pictures when possible, to show more specifically where crews are working and on what.
In addition to continuing and refining the improvements described above, Zewdu said LADWP has an “ambitious plan” to upgrade its Geographic Information System (GIS) in 2024. The project will divide the city into 475 one-mile squares and will identify, in each square, local “resilience hubs,” cooling centers, hospitals, police and fire stations, schools, places of worship, and community centers, which LADWP can communicate with directly to help get the word out about power outages and to which the agency can direct people for help during outages. Zewdu said Standard Operating Procedures for this new system will be ready in January, 2024, and it’s just one of several cooperative efforts LADWP is working on with other city departments and public safety agencies to improve overall customer service and safety.
After the presentation, Energy & Environment Committee chair Katy Yaroslavsky and committee member Nithya Raman asked several questions to clarify information about the new mapping and communications systems, and Zewdu provided a few additional details, including that the system will still rely on customer contacts to alert LADWP to power outages (and that it takes 2-3 contacts to verify an outage), because Los Angeles does not yet have the kind of smart meters that can transmit outage data directly to LADWP without human intervention.
Zewdu said, however, that smart metering is coming soon, and another new LADWP division – the Advanced Technology Infrastructure Group – is now focusing exclusively on installing both new automated meters and the “backbone” information infrastructure required to run them, which he said is actually more complicated than installing the meters themselves.
The presentation ended with a committee vote to formally accept and file the LADWP report. Yaroslavsky later told the Buzz, “It was encouraging to hear that LADWP has made significant investments in their infrastructure and their communications systems and protocols. But in the end, their work will be measured by how well they respond to the next winter storm. My team and I will continue to provide the necessary oversight to make sure that when the next storm hits, they are prepared.”