The first ruling on San Diego Gas & Electric’s controversial proposal to shut off power during high-risk fire conditions should come July 21 at a meeting of the California Public Utilities Commission (PUC).
The plan has been the subject of numerous hearings, meetings and heated discussions since last October when SDG&E applied to the PUC for permission to proceed with the idea.
Now a PUC administrative law judge is expected to issue a draft decision next week. His opinion could stand, but it will likely face reviews and other legal hurdles before a final decision is made by a vote of the full commission on Aug. 22. If approved, SDG&E stands ready to implement the policy on Sept. 1.
The Emergency Power Shut-Off Plan has been widely criticized by water districts, school officials, consumer advocates, telephone and cable companies and others. Last month the San Diego County Board of Supervisors voted to oppose the proposal, as well.
SDG&E contends that the plan would “eliminate a potential ignition source during extreme weather conditions when fire risks are high” and would be used infrequently, “just a couple times a year, and only in high-risk fire areas.”
Two investigations, by CalFire and the PUC, have blamed the 2007 wildfires on SDG&E power lines, resulting in more than 100 suits against the company by those seeking to recover damages.
Ralph McIntosh, general manager of the Ramona Municipal Water District, has estimated the shut-offs could impact about 28,000 Ramonans, or 67 percent of the district. Homes in areas that could experience a deliberate loss of power have already received a letter from SDG&E notifying them that they are in “an area that could be affected by an emergency power shut-off.”
SDG&E figures show that about 60,000 customers are part of this year’s high-risk fire area.
“However, not everyone would be affected by a power outage at the same time,” according to company literature, which estimates that only 10,000 or less would be impacted.
“We have taken to heart the very serious concerns that were raised last fall when we introduced the proposal,” said SDG&E spokesman Stephanie Donovan, who outlined steps that have been taken to address these fears.
For example, SDG&E first said that it would be the responsibility of water districts and schools to obtain their own generators to keep the power on.
“Now we plan to spend $6.5 million to create a pool of generators available to schools, water facilities and telecommunication companies at no cost to them,” said Donovan, SDG&E’s senior public relations manager. “They will come pre-wired with transfer switches.
“For those who do not want to remain in their homes during an outage, we’re going to work with the Red Cross to set up community care centers. We will provide emergency supplies, food and information on what’s happening.
“We will also have an arrangement with American Medical Transport to take those with medical needs to a nursing home or hospital at no charge.
“We’ve also set aside a pool of money to help those on fixed incomes who might not have the money to go to a hotel or replace food. We will be giving them debit cards worth up to $250 that can be activated as needed.
“In short we are trying to do whatever we can to reduce the impact on our customers.”
However, it appears that other concerns still remain.
For example, County Supervisor Dianne Jacob, whose district includes Ramona and other East County communities, has said that shutting off power would make it more difficult to evacuate because so many critical items would no longer work, such as traffic signals, street lights, gas pumps—even garage door openers, although openers can be overriden.
There is also fear that the Reverse 911 emergency notification system would be inoperable, as well as cell phones, and that residents would be unable to learn about impending danger with no access to television or the Internet.
But Donovan insists that “there is no downside for people who have taken the initiative and taken emergency preparations seriously. If they have a plan, a radio with batteries, three days worth of food and water and follow our other recommendations, they will be better prepared and able to act sooner if they face danger from any source.
“And remember, the shut-off plan would only be used as a last resort in extreme conditions.”