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State regulator orders detailed inspection of Long Beach power grid

A Southern California Edison worker peers into an underground electrical vault as crews attempt to fix an outage in Long Beach on July 31, 2015.

A Southern California Edison worker peers into an underground electrical vault as crews attempt to fix an outage in Long Beach on July 31, 2015.

(Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)

Southern California Edison must conduct an extraordinary inspection of its electrical grid under Long Beach after several recent fires left thousands of people without power, sometimes for days, the state’s Public Utilities Commission said.

Since July, the utility’s customers have experienced numerous outages caused by fires and explosions in its underground vaults. The biggest outage in mid-July left some residents and businesses without power for four days.

The city’s vaults are experiencing “unusual” conditions leading to smoke and fires, according to a letter the Public Utility Commission’s enforcement division sent the company Tuesday.

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The agency is “concerned about the safety and reliability of the electric distribution system serving Long Beach, and the measures being taken to keep the public safe,” the letter read. “The recent rash of outages, smoking vaults, and explosion in Long Beach is very troubling.”

The agency ordered the company to perform a detailed inspection of its grid, from the vaults to the conductors to the circuit breakers and fuses. The company released a statement responding to the order Tuesday.

“The safety of SCE customers and employees is its No. 1 priority. The company is cooperating with the commission through its investigation into the outages and has already implemented some changes to the system to improve safety and reliability on the network based on preliminary findings from SCE’s own internal investigation.

“Until the two incidents, SCE has been providing safe and reliable service to Long Beach for decades. The company is taking extraordinary measures to ensure it continues to do so. SCE welcomes the commission’s involvement in this process.”

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The commission gave Edison 30 days to report how it is complying with the order.

The outage in mid-July was the worst the company’s Long Beach customers have endured in at least 60 years, the company said.

Edison officials said the outage lasted so long for some because of Long Beach’s unique electrical design. The city’s grid is powered by a loop of electrical lines with no central beginning and end, said Paul Grigaux, vice president of transmission substations and operations for Edison.

The concept, Grigaux said, is that if one line fails, customers shouldn’t notice an interruption because the network will keep power flowing through the other circuits.

But the design also means there’s no simple way to identify where a problem occurs, he said. Repair crews during the July outage had to use trial and error, switching lines on and off until they found failed or weak lines.

For breaking California news, follow @JosephSerna.

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