Even though the California Public Utilities Commission (PUC) has rejected San Diego Gas & Electric’s plan to shut off power during dry and windy conditions to prevent wildfires, Ramonans and other backcountry residents have not heard the last of this issue.
The commissioners voted 4-1 against the shut-off plan on Sept. 10, because SDG&E did not show that it would reduce wildfires, but they made it clear that the utility “continues to have the authority to shut off power in emergency situations when necessary to protect public safety.”
And SDG&E’s chief executive officer, Debra Reed, made note of this point in her official response to the PUC’s Sept. 10 decision. She said that “while we are disappointed” in today’s ruling, “it’s important to point out that the PUC reaffirmed SDG&E’s statutory authority and responsibility to operate our system safely.”
As an example, the commissioners said SDG&E could shut off power if winds are stronger than what power poles are designed to withstand, but the conditions that would warrant such a power outage have never been spelled out.
“This is a management decision by people on the ground,” Commissioner John Bohn said, warning the utility that ‘we will be watching what you do and when you do it.”
Commissioners also said that they have the jurisdiction to review any such decision to cut power.
As part of its shut-off plan, SDG&E had been seeking a rule change that would have made it no longer liable for losses or injuries caused by power outages. And although the plan was denied, “the utility may have gotten what it really wanted: liability protection,” said Michael Shames, executive director of UCAN (Utility Consumers Action Network).
In presentations before the PUC, Ramona’s Diane Conklin of the Mussey Grade Road Alliance had suggested that a PUC decision that “is vague on the point of what constitutes a danger” could potentially be used by SDG&E “to deflect liability for the next fire it causes.” She explained that SDG&E could say, “We had a shut-off plan ready but the commission didn’t let us use it!”
Shames said the decision leaves the utility “with a lot of wiggle room.”
“So they’ll resort to a shut-off if they need it, but in reality, they likely won’t,” he said, adding that “they got the measure of liability protection they need.”
SDG&E has not yet indicated what its next step will be, but Reed said they are pleased that the PUC commended them “for the extensive measures we’ve taken since November 2007 to reduce the fire risk on our system.”
She pledged that the utility will “continue to bolster our fire-prevention efforts,” including “bringing in a large capacity, firefighting helicopter and a wildfire strike team to help respond to fires this fall.”
As part of its community fire safety program, SDG&E has replaced more than 700 wood poles with steel ones.
Conklin said that she supports this “hardening of the infrastructure,” but that it is not going to be completed in a “reasonable time frame.”
She said SDG&E told the Alliance “that it maintains 75,600 wooden poles in high fire-risk areas, and that its steel pole replacement program is planned to replace 1,000 poles per year, which yields an estimated completion time of 75 years.”
Moving forward, the PUC decision directed SDG&E to ‘make a good faith effort” to develop a new comprehensive fire prevention program in collaboration with those who would be affected by the outcome. Since virtually all such stakeholders have been involved in a rancorous debate with the utility for almost a year, reaching a consensus may be difficult, although several critics say they look forward to working with SDG&E on a new plan.
“There is an issue of how productive this can be,” Conklin said. “The company has not evidenced complete good faith in proceeding to date; however, that is not to say they won’t in the future.”
The PUC decision said that any new fire prevention program must be based on a cost-benefit analysis and include details on mitigating adverse impacts on customers, communities and the environment.
A framework for such a cost-benefit analysis has been developed by Conklin’s husband, Joseph Mitchell, a Ramona physicist who has studied the relationship between power lines and wildfires. He has said that CalFire records show that power lines are to blame for only 3 percent of wildfires, but that these fires tend to be “larger and more destructive” than fires started by other sources.
“We haven’t had all the information to do a cost-benefit analysis,” Conklin said. “We need a scientific, rational approach of weighing costs to get the best benefits with the least negative impact. And it may not be possible.”
Commissioners told SDG&E that “if the collaborative process does not result in a consensus proposal,” the utility may file its own new plan, but it must follow the same guidelines outlined for a consensus plan.
And if SDG&E chooses not to file a new fire-prevention proposal, the PUC said it must explain why it made that decision.
“Perhaps no power shut-off plan can be perfect,” said Commissioner Rachelle Chong. “But if in the future we are presented with another shut-off plan, it needs to be presented with more confidence” from those who would be affected.