PUC revisits power shutoff plan

By Rose Marie Scott-Blair

The California Public Utilities Commission (PUC) is revisiting the issue of whether San Diego Gas & Electric can shut off power to keep its lines from starting fires when conditions are windy and dry.

The PUC rejected an emergency shutoff plan proposed by the utility in 2009 but noted that SDG&E does have a “statutory obligation” to protect public safety by operating its system safely—a responsibility that could include shutting off power.

To meet this obligation, SDG&E has said that it might have to shut off power if winds exceed the design limits of its system, which it says are 56 mph in areas with wooden utility poles and 85 mph where there are steel poles.

This approach was challenged last September by Disability Rights Advocates in a petition to the PUC, a position that has been supported by the PUC’s Consumer Protection and Safety Division and its Division of Ratepayer Advocates. These two groups contend that a PUC general order requires that Grade A wood poles must withstand wind speeds of at least 91 mph.

Looking at these conflicting figures, Administrative Law Judge Timothy Kenney recently ruled that it “raises the relevant issue of whether SDG&E has authority” under PUC codes “to shut off power when wind gusts on its wood poles reach 56 mph.”

“The judge gave us a directive to answer a dozen detailed questions designed to solve this issue once and for all,” said SDG&E spokesman Stephanie Donovan. “This is a pretty critical issue because it relates to how Southern California’s investor-owned utilities have designed and built their systems.”

The judge invited other interested parties to weigh in on the discussion, and many are, including Ramona’s Mussey Grade Road Alliance.

“The alliance is pleased to see this issue being revisited by the commission,” said Ramona resident Diane Conklin, “and we welcome this effort to clarify SDG&E’s plans regarding shutting off power.”

In its response, the alliance references other standards used across the country, leading the alliance to conclude that “SDG&E is more lax than national engineering standards,” Conklin said.

“Their own data shows that there is more that can be done to increase fire safety with regard to wind speed issues, based on their own system,” Conklin said. “Their system needs to be safer in connection with wind speeds that can cause the ignition of catastrophic wildland fires.”

Donovan anticipates that there is going to be “a lot of back and forth comments” before the judge eventually makes a ruling, “probably by the end of the year,” she said. “Of course, we have another fire season starting Sept. 1.”

   
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