southern california edison

New law seeks to eliminate metallic balloon hazards

Some California cities have banned them, public safety campaigns have persistently targeted them and state legislation has even tackled them.

Still, released metallic balloons continue to bedevil Southern California Edison and other California utilities, causing public safety hazards and hundreds of power outages yearly when they float into power lines and electrical equipment.

But a game-changing solution for electric utilities and their customers is on the way.

Starting no later than Jan. 1, 2027, Assembly bill 847 — passed unanimously by the state Assembly and Senate in August and signed into law by Gov. Gavin Newsom in September — will mandate that all metallic balloons sold or made for sale in California be made of material that does not conduct electricity. The plan is for the new balloons to look just like current metallic balloons minus the safety, fire and outage risks. The law calls for a four-year phase-in period for manufacturers and retailers to make non-conductive balloons available to consumers.

The law is welcomed by SCE, which annually experiences a spike in balloon-related outages starting with Valentine’s Day and peaking with May and June’s graduations. Last year, the utility experienced a 27% decrease in balloon-caused outages, as high helium prices reduced customer demand for metallic balloons. Persistent public safety warnings may also be a factor in the decline; however, SCE still experienced 802 balloon-related outages impacting 1.1 million customers in 2022. Nearly 60% occurred between February and June.

“We commend state leadership for acting on this longtime public safety threat,” said Andrew Baldonado, vice president of State Public Affairs at SCE. “This legislation will help protect residents and businesses from unnecessary hazards and outages, especially as climate change increases California’s wildfire risks and grid reliability challenges. This law is a significant step in the right direction.”

The legislation was sponsored by Assemblymember Bill Quirk, D-Hayward, in collaboration with San Diego Gas & Electric. It worked with Anagram, a top balloon manufacturer, and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers to develop and test a balloon that looks just like traditional metallic balloons but is non-conductive.

The metallic coating on current balloons is highly conductive when they come into contact with electrical equipment and leads to short circuits, outages and explosions that can bring down power lines and potentially lead to severe injuries, fires and property damage. That happened 97 times within SCE’s service area last year.

The most prevalent problem, however, remains disruptive power outages like one last Valentine’s Day afternoon in Fontana that impacted 1,500 customers — some until the next morning — when metallic balloons became tangled in power lines. Another occurred eight days later in Apple Valley that briefly interrupted service for 18,000 customers when balloons landed in a substation.

Until the new law takes effect, SCE urges balloon owners to abide by one simple but crucial practice this Valentine’s season and beyond.

“Never, ever release metallic balloons outdoors and always keep them tied to a weight as previous state law requires,” said Adam Dow, SCE’s principal manager of Operational Risk Management & Public Safety. “Safety and keeping the lights on are our top priorities, and we urge our customers to be responsible by never releasing metallic balloons outdoors.”

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This article was written by Paul Netter, an ENERGIZED by Edison Writer.