A motion to stop San Diego Gas & Electric from shutting off power during high-risk fire conditions has been denied by a judge with the California Public Utilities Commission (PUC).
An informal coalition of groups was seeking a temporary restraining order to stop SDG&E from implementing the shut-off plan on Sept. 1, before the PUC has ruled on the matter.
The coalition is comprised of six water districts—including Ramona Municipal Water District—San Diego County Schools, disability rights advocates and UCAN (Utility Consumers’ Action Network).
“SDG&E does not have the authority to unilaterally shut off power when the weather is simply hot, dry and windy,” the opponents said in their motion. And they criticized the utility for setting its five weather conditions that would trigger shut-offs “without consultation or approval from CalFire.”
In denying the motion, PUC Administrative Law Judge Timothy Kenney noted that the opponents “have not demonstrated that they are likely to prevail on the merits” of their case because nothing has occurred to suggest how the PUC will rule on SDG&E’s plan.
“Having failed one of the tests for granting a temporary restraining order, there is no need to consider the other tests,” he said.
However, the coalition is now asking that the full commission issue such an order against SDG&E at their next meeting on Aug. 20.
Kenney’s ruling was not a total victory for SDG&E because it also said that the utility “may be held responsible for any harm or adverse consequences” that arise from shutting off power prior to a decision on its plan by the full commission.
“But this still puts the burden on the injured party to show damages and a causal relationship, and that’s wrong,” said attorney Sophie Akins of the San Diego law firm of Best Best & Krieger, which represents the opponents who filed the motion. “Money doesn’t eliminate the injury and may be a small consolation to someone who is hurt. Money is not the solution for everything.”
The much-anticipated proposed decision by the PUC on SDG&E’s plan should be presented very soon. The current schedule calls for a ruling on the plan by the full PUC at a meeting on Sept. 10, which means that Kenney will have to issue his proposed decision no later than Aug. 11 to allow for a 30-day comment period. And if Kenney and Commissioner Timothy Simon are not in agreement, it’s possible that Simon will issue an alternate proposed decision.
In its motion, the coalition of opponents represented by Akins’ firm also called on the PUC to implement “mitigation measures” and “a response protocol” if it should approve SDG&E’s plan.
“To allow SDG&E’s plan to go forward without such mitigation measures or any safety protocols in place puts the lives of backcountry residents at risk,” the motion said. “If SDG&E shuts off power as it has indicated, lives will be lost.”
In his ruling, Kenney commented that the opponents “have painted a dire picture of the harm that will occur if SDG&E is allowed to shut off power, while all but ignoring” that the purpose of the plan is to prevent power lines from starting and spreading fires.
“The disastrous consequences of a catastrophic wildfire could easily exceed the harm” caused by shutting off power, he said.
SDG&E is pleased that the judge acknowledged the purpose of the shut-off plan, said utility spokesman Stephanie Donovan.
“Bottom line: if turning off power for a few can help make the region safer for all of our customers, most people probably would agree it’s a good trade-off,” she said.
In a related issue, Akins and fellow attorney Jennifer Haley have criticized the San Diego City Fire Fighters union for endorsing the shut-off plan without first hearing the views of the other side. In an Aug. 5 letter to Local 145 President Frank DeClercq, they ask for the opportunity to meet with him and note that he recently refused to do so.
“We are concerned that the firefighters union has adopted a public position supporting SDG&E’s shut-off plan without taking the time to speak with a single stakeholder opposed to SDG&E’s plan,” they said. “Given the important position of public trust occupied by the firefighters serving our communities, we are unclear why the firefighters union would deny themselves the opportunity to make a fully informed decision” by not “meeting or speaking with us about our significant health and safety concerns” about the plan.