San Diego Gas & Electric cannot shut off the power to Ramona homes and businesses and others in the backcountry during high-risk weather conditions unless and until its plan is officially approved by the California Public Utilities Commission (PUC).
That was the decision of PUC commissioners, who voted 3-2 on Aug. 20 to issue a temporary restraining order against SDG&E to stop the utility from effecting its plan on Sept. 1, before the matter is considered at a PUC meeting on Sept. 10.
The decision was hailed as a victory by critics of the controversial shut-off plan, such as County Supervisor Dianne Jacob, who praised the PUC for “putting a stop to SDG&E’s arrogant and unilateral attempt to implement its shut-off plan prior to a formal decision by state regulators.”
The motion to prevent SDG&E from moving forward without the PUC’s stamp of approval was brought by a group of opponents. The coalition is comprised of six water districts, including the Ramona Municipal Water District, the San Diego County Schools, disability right advocates and UCAN (Utility Consumer Action Network).
“We’re very encouraged that the commissioners recognize the significant health and safety risks imposed by the plan,” said Jennifer Haley, an attorney who presented the coalition’s side at the PUC meeting.
If SDG&E receives permission from the PUC to proceed with some sort of shut-off plan, Ramona could be one of the most affected areas. Ramona has a total of 18,000 electric meters and all of them are in the potential outage area, said SDG&E spokesman Stephanie Donovan.
The utility’s figures show that a meter serves 2.9 people on average, so more than 52,000 Ramonans could be impacted. However, SDG&E estimates that only 8,000 to 10,000 meters, or 23,000 to 29,000 individuals, would lose power in a single event.
In total, there are almost 60,000 meters in the outage area, which can be seen in a map displayed on the utility’s Web site (www.sdge.com).
In granting the restraining order, the PUC was careful to state that this decision will not “prejudge” its final ruling expected on Sept. 10. At that time the PUC will be considering an Aug. 11 proposed decision by Commissioner Timothy Simon, which suggests that SDG&E be allowed to run a pilot plan, with numerous conditions, until the end of year.
But an alternate proposed decision by PUC Administrative Law Judge Timothy Kenney denied SDG&E’s application outright. However, commissioners are free to come up with yet another idea and are still accepting comments and suggestions about the case.
Haley believes that the decisions rendered to date “indicate that the SDG&E plan will not go forward as proposed” and that SDG&E will not be given “carte blanche authority to de-energize.”
Meanwhile, Donovan remains hopeful that the commissioners “will find some middle ground that will allow us to move forward with the plan and prevent another catastrophic wildfire in the region.”
Arcing power lines have been blamed for three large wildfires in October 2007, which has already cost SDG&E $740 million in settlements, with more lawsuits still pending.
In the decision granting the restraining order, the PUC said that the coalition demonstrated that the shut-off plan “would impose substantial costs, burdens and risks on the people and communities in the areas where power is shut off. Consequently, allowing SDG&E to implement its plan, without commission review and authorization, would constitute a major departure from the status quo.
“Conversely, we have no reason to believe that the status quo poses an imminent danger to public safety.”