JUICE: CPUC’s Monday Morning Quarterbacks

By Published On: September 18, 2009

I love California’s backcountry--be it Malibu Canyon or Alpine east of San Diego. I’ve chosen not to live in those areas, however. One reason is fire danger. That’s why I closely followed last week’s California Public Utilities Commission decision to deny a San Diego Gas & Electric plan to turn off power in the fire-prone backcountry when Santa Ana winds blow. Like Monday morning quarterbacks, the commission told utilities to figure out how to prevent lines from starting fires when it’s windy and to simultaneously meet their duty to provide reliable power service. Achieve both objectives, or land in court, they warned. Ditto for back country residents who said: Don’t let your power lines start any fires and don’t you dare cut off our power when the winds whip through the brush. Easier said then done. What residents don’t want to talk about is that wind and fire have burned the areas where they live regularly for thousands of years. Oblivious to this, they seem to expect utilities, fire fighters, and insurance companies to guarantee that their homes won’t burn down and that they won’t experience any inconvenience or bear any added expenses in living in fire-prone areas. Indeed, a review of even recent history shows that in some locations homes burn down repeatedly--just like the homes that flood again and again on barrier islands along the Atlantic seaboard and Gulf of Mexico coast. I’m sympathetic and believe utilities should follow the rules when it comes to how they build and maintain their power lines. But even when a wire sparks fire my question is does the responsibility begin and end with the utility? After all, California’s foothill and canyon lands are akin to Galveston, Texas, or Key Largo, Florida. As much as I love these islands too, I don’t live there because they periodically experience storms of wind and water. I’m not fond of covering my windows with plywood and sleeping on gymnasium floors for days on end when hurricanes come. California’s beautiful backcountry faces storms of wind and fire. In both places, it’s not the storms that create human tragedy, but the built environment. Developers in San Diego, where I grew up, built homes and strip malls far up into the foothills in valleys and canyons that function like wind tunnels during Santa Ana conditions. The CPUC can’t address these bad land-use decisions by local politicians plied by greedy and opportunistic developers and banks. Nor, should it. But it can and should address the cost of hardening the grid to firestorms. As they do, here’s some Monday morning quarterback advice at the outset of both football and fire season: -Eschew cross-subsidies of backcountry dwellers by those who choose less fire-prone areas. Instead, as backcountry folk request, order utilities to harden their systems against fire with all due dispatch and incorporate the incremental costs into rates paid only in wildfire prone zones. Consider it just another factor in zonal and real time pricing of power. Smart meters could display a little flame icon in those areas to remind customers why it costs more to deliver power there than in other areas. -Likewise, immediately approve any rate increases necessitated by higher fire insurance costs paid by utilities, but allow the companies to collect that amount only from customers in fire-prone areas. -Use the bully pulpit to call for legislation to form a special district in San Diego County to finance a well equipped, professional fire department, like Los Angeles and Orange County fire agencies. The district could incorporate and be financed by just those areas that are wildfire prone. This way, volunteers roused from a sound sleep--gallant as they may be--wouldn’t be the first responders when wildfires roar. After doing that, sit back and see if the bank foreclosures begin as the backcountry residents could be priced out of their homes due to the true cost of fire protection in these ancient fire corridors. If that happens, expect the banks to sell the properties at fire sale prices, with few buyers but the public sector. After the public buys up the land, the government could turn it into a series of wildlife preserves. Indeed, the cost of purchasing the land quickly would be recouped through savings on the cost of fighting fires. Utilities could simply wind up their wires and no longer face fire liability. Then, wildfires no longer would pose as a great a potential for human tragedy. Fire bulletins would no longer constantly interrupt televised football games, which I also love. Or perhaps the CPUC could instead allow the utilities to simply turn out the lights in the backcountry now and then as long as there were proper mitigations in place.

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