DWP’s lessons from the heat wave

In the week leading up to Labor Day, a searing heat wave gripped Los Angeles. Temperatures soared into the triple digits, and the very air seemed to be on fire. The oppressive heat claimed more than a dozen lives in the county before the temperatures dropped. At the height of the crisis, nearly 30,000 of the L.A. Department of Water and Power’s customers were without power, and more than 90 crews were struggling with scattered outages throughout the city.

Some think the heat “storm” was an anomaly that probably won’t be repeated. Others contend that even if it recurs annually, we should not invest heavily to address a one- or two-week event. After all, at the height of this year’s heat storm, only about 2% of the DWP’s customers were without power, and outages were restored quickly (in less than 48 hours, 27,000 customers had their power restored, and three-quarters of customers experiencing any outage had power again within 24 hours). In the DWP’s territory, heat-related deaths were not because of power outages, and overall, the utility’s performance reflected some improvement over last summer. In the end, the DWP fared no better or worse than other utilities.

That, however, isn’t good enough.

To begin with, climate change is a reality, and heat storms may be a symptom of it. After two successive summers with prolonged periods of stifling heat, we must consider ourselves warned about the shape of things to come. Second, power outages in such times take an enormous toll in terms of immediate human misery, not to mention higher healthcare costs and lost economic productivity. Third, it is scant consolation to those suffering without electricity during a heat storm to be told that the other 98% are doing just fine; after all, we all pay for the service.

We also have to remember that the DWP’s infrastructure is aging; some of it is 40 to 70 years old. Throughout the heat storm, our L.A. power plants labored like old workhorses, devoted but stressed. The rest of the strained system (transformers, circuits, poles, wires, etc.) creaked but held up, partly because of an aggressive program of replacing about 3,000 transformers over the last year. DWP crew members, who deserve our gratitude, were stretched to the limit, working 16-hour shifts for eight straight days, even with the help of outside, private crews. Next summer may be even more challenging.

It is clear that we have to recognize a new reality. We have to upgrade our infrastructure, we have to redesign our system to accommodate greater demand volatility, and we have to add staff.

That is why the department’s 2007-08 budget (adopted by the DWP Board of Commissioners in June), calls for a billion-dollar investment over the next five years to renovate our infrastructure. The budget also includes 768 new positions to address staffing shortfalls and makes an unprecedented investment in energy conservation and efficiency programs.

All of these crucial initiatives -- and others related to diversifying our energy sources -- need time and money. It is indisputable that we will have to have some increase in base rates in order to meet these challenges. The rate increases called for in the DWP budget -- the need for which has been independently verified by an auditor retained by the City Council -- will be considered by the council this fall. They are fairly modest, about 3% a year for three years (which translates to annual raises of about $1.75 per month for the typical household), and they are vital. They represent the investment we must make in order to secure sufficient, dependable, cost-effective electricity for the future.

In an L.A. Times column just as temperatures cooled, Steve Lopez, infuriated at experiencing an outage, declared that he should be exempted from any future rate increases. But the problem is that we all have been exempted from rate increases. In fact, the last base rate increase we had in L.A. for power service was in 1992, 15 years ago, and our rates are as much as 30% to 50% lower than those of other comparable utilities.

The lessons of the heat wave of 2007 should be heeded. We can substantially diminish the pain, inconvenience and economic damage that are the consequences of heat-induced power outages. It’s time to take care of the future.

H. David Nahai is president of the Los Angeles Board of Water and Power Commissioners, which oversees the operation of the DWP.