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Gearing Up for El Niño

SCE makes extensive plans to get the power grid, facilities and equipment ready for the predicted major storm season.

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This is one in a series of stories on how Southern California Edison is preparing for El Niño and the 2015-16 storm season. See more about preparing for El Niño. 

Weather forecasters are calling it the “Godzilla El Niño,” the likes of which Southern California hasn’t seen for at least 17 years and perhaps even worse than the record-setting storms of 1982-83.

So how do you keep the lights on?

Southern California Edison has been working on the answer since August, when the utility formed a companywide El Niño preparedness team to plan for the storm season.

Paul Grigaux, SCE’s vice president of Transmission, Substations and Operations, noted that in 1997-98, the last big El Niño year, the company did little planning. As a result, the company was ill-prepared to deal with the monster storms that brought record rains, flooding, landslides, major coastal erosion and even tornados and water spout sightings.

“We learned we need to take proactive steps, not just during the event,” Grigaux said. “We’ve begun to identify the potential strategies to mitigate the potential impacts of a significant El Niño similar to what we experienced in 1998.”

Plans run the gamut from a stepped-up program to trim trees and other vegetation that might bring down power lines to stocking up on transformers and utility poles.

The company is also reviewing its backup equipment needs, including portable sump pumps, portable generators, batteries and battery-charging systems. Equipment will be strategically staged in the areas identified as most vulnerable throughout SCE’s 50,000-square-mile territory.

“Based on the current weather forecasts and system assessments we have completed so far, we expect to see the greatest potential for mudslides in rural areas, mountainous areas and communities located in wildland-urban interface zones,” Grigaux said. “Customers served by infrastructure that runs through these vulnerable areas could therefore experience higher than normal service interruptions depending on the extent of the damage caused by the El Niño.”

One major focus of the preparations has been assuring that SCE’s substations and equipment are protected. Crews are removing vegetation around the substations and drains are being checked to make sure they are properly cleared. Substation backup generation is being tested to ensure it is functioning.

The company also has prioritized patrols in areas that could have mudslides, ensuring that footings on the towers are stable and reinforcing them where necessary.

Preparations also include coordination with county emergency departments, the state Office of Emergency Services, first responders, the American Red Cross and local city and county officials throughout the region.

“Even though we’ve learned from the El Niño in 1998, there’s no way we can eliminate the potential for outages,” Grigaux said. “We are taking a number of steps to try to mitigate the increased number of interruptions we expect.”

SCE’s No. 1 priority is the safety of its customers and employees. Never approach or touch a downed power line or dangling wire — even if it appears not to be live. Call 911 immediately.