CPUC Rejects SDG&E Wildfire Power Shut Off Plan

By Published On: September 11, 2009

Against the advice of firefighters, the California Public Utilities Commission refused to back San Diego Gas & Electric’s plan to shut off power to as many as 130,000 people when wildfire danger soars due to wind and low humidity. “This is a management decision by people on the ground,” commissioner John Bohn said during a September 10 meeting. “They [SDG&E] have the power to do this right now without our approval.” The commission, on a 4-1 vote--with commissioner Timothy Simon in opposition--approved the decision by administrative law judge Timothy Kenney denying the utility plan. The utility also unsuccessfully sought immunity from any liabilities that might arise as a result of power shutoffs. Bohn acknowledged that the utility faces liability issues whether or not it turns off the power during periods of elevated fire danger. “While we are disappointed in today’s ruling on the shut-off component of our overall community fire safety program,” stated utility president Debra Reed, “it’s important to point out that the CPUC reaffirmed SDG&E’s statutory authority and responsibility to operate our system safely.” She said that the shut off plan was but one element of a larger effort the company is making to reduce the potential of its system to ignite fires in back country areas. Commission action came after San Diego and Orange County firefighters pleaded with regulators to back SDG&E’s power shut off plan. “We need more resources to fight fires.” said Frank DeClerk, San Diego City Firefighters Local 145 president. “This plan will save lives.” Unlike other major metropolitan counties in the state, firefighters pointed out that San Diego County has no county fire department even though it’s home to some of the worst wildfires in the nation. “East San Diego and Orange County are ancient fire corridors,” said Joe Kerr, Orange County Professional Firefighters Association president. “Now, tens of thousands of homes have been placed in those corridors.” Yet many who live in those areas bitterly opposed the plan. “SDG&E refuses to take into account that it is much harder to report, fight, or flee from fires when the power is shut off,” said Diane Conklin, spokesperson for the Mussey Grade Alliance, a historical preservation group active in the fire-prone San Diego County back country. After public hearings, commission judge Kenney concluded that the costs and risks of the plan outweighed its benefits. He advised the commission to simply deny the plan and terminate the utility’s fire safety proceeding. SDG&E devised the plan after its lines were implicated as a cause of massive fires in San Diego County in 2007. The fires burned down more than 1,400 homes and killed two people (Circuit, Nov. 14, 2008). The utility faces hundreds of millions of dollars of liability and an insurance rate hike it hopes to pass on to ratepayers (see related story). SDG&E’s plan would have allowed it to shut off power in 17 different back country areas of the populous county under a variety of conditions posing elevated wildfire danger. The CPUC left on the table commissioner Tim Simon’s proposed decision, which--after a last minute change--also would have turned down the utility’s plan. The difference was that Simon would have kept the proceeding open and attempted by December to develop a consensus fire safety plan that included the power shut off option. Simon noted that his original proposed decision would have approved the utility’s shut off plan on a pilot basis for this fall, followed by a review of whether it should continue. However, in what the commissioner called an “all night rewrite,” he decided to drop approval of the pilot project from his proposed decision. Kenney raised concerns, noting in his decision the potential impact of shutting off power on people who depend upon electrically-powered medical devices, plus the chance that people will turn to using candles, lanterns, barbecues, and generators, all of which carry their own fire risk. He cited the potential for increased traffic accidents when traffic signals are out at intersections. Kenney wrote too that schools could lose state funding should they have to shut down due to the loss of power and that water districts would have to spend millions of dollars on backup generators to keep water flowing. The administrative law judge further pointed out that extensive loss of communications--including everything from radio and television service in homes and telephone service--could deny people crucial information and isolate them. SDG&E’s plan acknowledged these concerns and outlined extensive mitigation measures, including a plan to notify residents by phone and other forms of communication in advance of any power cut offs, free transportation for those with special medical needs, the opening of evacuation centers, and the provision of mobile generators to keep essential facilities operating. Recent history shows the utility could have invoked the plan in one or more of the 17 fire prone areas for as much as a day or longer numerous times a year due to extreme weather. Shutoffs would have been most frequent in the late summer and early fall when Santa Ana conditions routinely bring hot, dry, and windy weather. In addition to the shut off plan, SDG&E is working to “harden” its facilities to high winds in fire prone areas. Commissioner Dian Grueneich said this may “be an alternative” to cutting off power. Hardening steps include installing automatic cutoff devices that shut circuits temporarily when lines are overloaded, moving some lines further apart, installing line separators in some places, replacing wood poles with steel poles, using heavier cable that can better withstand wind, and placing lines underground in strategic locations. SDG&E also is increasing its efforts to trim vegetation in fire prone areas and visually inspect lines more often.

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