The big freeze in Texas and resulting large scale failure of its power grid reminded me of a similar crisis here in southern California I lived through while working at Southern California Edison (SCE).
This failure was caused by excessively hot weather, in SCE parlance, a Heat Storm.
High summer temperatures are not unusual in the San Gabriel Valley, but they were excessive that week in August and just got hotter and hotter.
SCE has more than 11 million customers from Orange County to the Central Valley of California. In my territory, 48 cities from Pomona to Alhambra and into a small section of East Los Angeles not served by the LA Department of Water and Power (DWP), there were more than 2 million people.
Many of our customers were crammed into high density communities like El Monte, Pomona and Pico Rivera. The foothills at either side of the valley were more affluent, but the corridor between the San Bernardino and Pomona Freeways was made up largely of blue collar neighborhoods, many of them largely populated with customers of Hispanic and Asian descent. Some of them didn’t speak English.
As the temperatures began to soar, air conditioners went on by the hundreds of thousands in homes and businesses.
And instead of behaving like most heat waves and fading after a couple of days, this one hung on and intensified.
The temperatures began to blow out transformers, the large barrels attached to power poles every few hundred feet. Filled with oil or another viscous liquid, a transformer reduces the voltage of electricity as it travels from the power pole into a home or business.
When a transformer blows out, it takes down a portion of the electric service in a neighborhood. Starting late on day two of the heat storm, transformers all over the San Gabriel Valley began to fail, taking with them first hundreds, then thousands of customers.
My staff of six managers were soon inundated by calls from city managers, business and community leaders and friends wanting to know how long the outages would last.
SCE crews had responded immediately as the crisis began, but it soon became clear there was a bottleneck in the process: not enough spare transformers.
SCE had an inventory of transformers at the dozens of service centers were the crews worked. Extra transformers were available to be installed in growing areas, and as backup for emergencies like the heat storm. But the available supply soon ran out, and executives at headquarters scrambled to call neighboring and even out of state electric utilities to purchase transformers.
As I had learned a year earlier, replacing a transformer could be a difficult process if the power pole it was attached to was in a hard to reach location. Usually, crews drove up to a pole and used the cherry picker hydraulic lift to access the transformer, a job that might take an hour or two. But if the transformer had to replaced manually, it was a whole different matter. One rainy night in La Crescenta the previous year, I had watched two linemen climb up a pole using their boots (reinforced with spikes), then at the top, hauling up a new transformer using a rope and pulley. It took a long, long time. I’m sure during the heat storm some transformers had to be replaced in the same manner.
The scariest moment in the heat storm for me came when the manager of a sanitation district in Duarte called the office, pleading for restoration of power. In a few hours, he said, the huge vats of raw sewage awaiting treatment would begin to overflow unless his operation could resume.
I put in a call to Paul Jones, who was the general manager of the Irvine Ranch Water District, which I knew from my days in Irvine maintained a couple of huge generators on flatbed trucks for just such emergencies. Paul promised to check their availability. Thankfully, half an hour later I received a call from the sanitation district: the power was back on, crisis avoided.
As the heat storm wound down, we checked in with hospitals in particular to make sure they either had backup power from generators or were still on line. Same with police departments and fire stations.
I left SCE a year or so later, so I don’t know if more transformers were purchased or not, but I do recall that a company-wide analysis was ordered to evaluate how the company could prepare for future problems.
I was impressed during my SCE career how much cooperation existed between electric utilities, and how more than once SCE sent crews to help out others experiencing a crisis, and vice versa. Texans will soon be asking themselves if their state’s policy of a completely independent power grid continues to make sense, as such an arrangement precludes receiving power from outside the state.
Michael Stockstill worked in the public affairs department of SCE for five years. He is retired.
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