Mike Marelli is vice president, business customer service for Southern California Edison, the wide-ranging utility that provides service to 14 million people across 50,000 square miles and 12 counties.
Marelli oversees SCE’s relationships with its major industrial, commercial government and health care customers. Hospitals are an important customer category — they are the most energy-intensive health care facility type, utilizing close to twice the energy per square foot as medical office buildings. (Additional information is available via SCE’s Hospital Fact Sheet.)
HASC hospitals have worked closely with SCE to reduce power consumption during peak times — an accomplishment for which they received recognition and thanks last month.
Marelli has been with SCE for more than a decade and recently served as incident commander for the utility’s response to the Creek Fire. The Creek Fire has burned more than 322,000 acres in the Sierra Nevada’s Shaver Lake-Huntington Lake area — site of SCE’s Big Creek Hydroelectric Project. The Creek Fire is now the largest wildfire in the state’s history and has burned for more than a month.
This interview is part of In the Spotlight — a HASC series profiling people connected to the association pursuing impactful work in their communities.
Marelli spoke with HASC Strategic Communications and reflected on the ongoing pandemic, climate change, the state’s energy needs and other timely issues.
A three-minute audio supplement to the interview is available here.
The link is also available here, for readers to share: www.youtube.com/watch?v=NRiw9tJxAEw.
Public safety power shutoffs have been standard practice in California for years to prevent wildfire — although mainly used in rural areas. Catastrophic blazes in 2017 and 2018 are prompting their more widespread use. Given longer and more intense fire seasons, will PSPSs be even more common in years to come?
We continue to reduce the risk of electrical equipment igniting wildfires. In the past year, for instance, we have implemented a variety of technologies for advanced fire safety, including new high-definition cameras, weather stations and miles of insulated power lines. We are also expanding operational practices, such as enhanced overhead inspections, vegetation management and emergency response protocols. With the grid and operational improvements made since last year, SCE expects a 30 percent reduction in the number of customers affected by future PSPS events, assuming weather conditions are similar to 2019. It’s important to note that approximately half of customers who may be affected this year are not expected to experience PSPS at all in 2020 as improvements continue to be made.
A few snags accompanied wider use of PSPSs — including impacts on hospitals. Service providers across the state have made substantial efforts to communicate and work with facilities to ensure smooth and interruption-free implementation. What are examples of issues that utilities and hospitals have worked together to resolve?
We are committed to a smooth and transparent process, and are working both during the offseason and during activations to identify and solve pain points and communicate in a manner that is timely, accurate and actionable.
We meet with HASC hospitals annually to prepare members for PSPS events. In 2019, SCE partnered with HASC to conduct in-person meetings with hospitals to provide PSPS notification and process updates. In 2020, we met virtually and conducted online resiliency workshops. During these workshops, SCE shared information on which facilities might be impacted and information on the PSPS notification process prior to, during and after an event.
- The pandemic exacerbates the challenges and impacts of PSPS. SCE continuously coordinates with public safety partners, critical infrastructure providers, local governments, and others to gain visibility on emerging risks. This year, SCE met with County Offices of Emergency Management in high fire-risk areas to discuss PSPS issues, including identifying COVID-19-related critical facilities. SCE continues to hold regular meetings with state emergency agencies on these matters.
- To mitigate against risks associated with critical facilities that may have insufficient resiliency plans, SCE works closely with critical customers, such as hospitals, to evaluate resiliency needs and assist with preparedness efforts. SCE has a small fleet of backup generators that can be deployed in emergencies to critical facilities whose resiliency plans fail during events.
- To communicate effectively with member hospitals, it is important that we have updated outage contact information. We have reached out to HASC members with assigned account managers to verify this information. Members who do not have an assigned account manager can update their outage contacts through MyAccount at www.sce.com or SCE’s Customer Call Center at (800) 655-4555.
Diesel generators are a standard source of interim power during outages. With interruptions possibly becoming more common and sustained, what new technologies are emerging as alternative temporary power sources? How can hospital managers learn more about these systems?
Currently, backup generation is the only technology that can meet the power requirements for hospitals and other large facilities impacted by PSPS. We are exploring how we could use energy storage to provide power during outages, but we need to address the challenges of limited capacity and grid integration, while maintaining safety and reliability. We are also looking at renewable fuels or natural gas to reduce emissions from backup generators. Actions that can be taken today include minimizing backup generation needs, using energy efficiency measures and on-site solar panels paired with some amount of energy storage.
How are utilities and hospitals working together to conserve power, especially during peak times, to avoid rolling blackouts and other issues? How might hospitals of the future reduce their consumption even further?
The recent rotating outages were a result of shortages on the California electric grid, which is managed by the California Independent System Operator (CAISO). During CAISO rotating outages, hospitals were able to support the grid and reduce community outages by running their facilities on back up generation to reduce load. Hospitals themselves are excluded from CAISO rotating outage blocks so were not at risk of outages.
We are partnering with organizations like HASC to inform, educate and share best practices. We offer financial incentives for eligible hospitals in our service area to upgrade equipment to reduce energy consumption and offer account management support to help customers develop energy efficiency and load reduction strategies. For instance, hospitals can reduce lighting and cooling in non-critical areas.
Anything else hospital managers should know about the current environment — or future challenges?
Minimizing scope and duration of PSPS is a top priority for SCE in 2020. Unfortunately, the pandemic, along with weather and fuel conditions, indicate potential for even more fires this fall. PSPS will continue to be our tool of last resort to reduce fire risk and will require continued collaboration with Public Safety Partners.
Our ask is that you continue to communicate with us — let us know what we can do better to partner in your important work to keep our communities safe and healthy.
Contact HASC Publications Director Erik Skindrud with comments or ideas for future In the Spotlight interviews.