Hundreds turn out for hearings on SDG&E wildfire cost recovery plan

CPUC Commission Timothy Alan Simon and Administrative Law Judge Maribeth Bushey listen to testimony. Sentinel photo/Karen Brainard
CPUC Commission Timothy Alan Simon and Administrative Law Judge Maribeth Bushey listen to testimony. Sentinel photo/Karen Brainard

By Karen Brainard

The public hearing to address San Diego Gas & Electric’s proposal to recover uninsured wildfire losses — a hearing Ramonan Diane Conklin fought for — drew about 450 people Thursday afternoon with another 200 showing up at a second hearing in the evening.

“I’m astounded by the turnout,” said Conklin, “but in all reality I’m not surprised. We were the party that insisted on a public participation hearing and maybe that was because we believe in the people and grassroots.”

Conklin is the spokesperson for Mussey Grade Road Alliance in Ramona.

The hearings were held by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) at Al Bahr Shriners Center in San Diego and were conducted by Commissioner Timothy Alan Simon and Administrative Law Judge Maribeth Bushey. A CPUC spokesperson said 146 people signed up to speak during the afternoon session.

Few people were in support of SDG&E’s application to the CPUC to establish a Wildfire Expense Balancing Account (WEBA) to record and recover costs from the 2007 wildfires and future fires that could lead to ratepayers picking up a $500 million tab.

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District 2 Supervisor Dianne Jacob tells the CPUC that SDG&E and its parent company, Sempra Energy, must be responsible for the wildfire costs. Sentinel photo/Karen Brainard

Many protesting SDG&E’s proposal criticized the utility and its parent company, Sempra Energy, for seeking to recover costs from ratepayers while the companies have posted profits and given management bonuses.

Those speaking in opposition included county supervisors Dianne Jacob and Pam Slater-Price, and state Senator Christine Kehoe.

Jacob received a standing ovation from many in the audience after her testimony.

“The flames from 2007 might be out but many people in this room feel like we’re still getting burned,” she said. “That’s because we’re watching our utility roil around in more than healthy profits while we’re being asked to pay for their mistakes.”

Jacob said the commision’s own Consumer Protection and Safety Division concluded that SDG&E failed to properly design, construct, and maintain its lines, which caused the Witch, Guejito, and Rice fires during dry Santa Ana winds in October 2007. Those fires burned more than 200,000 acres, destroyed about 1,800 homes and other buldings, and killed two people, she noted.

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“There must be a penalty for skirting the rules. It’s very simple: you burn it, you buy it,” Jacob said.

According to Jacob, SDG&E managers and executives received more than $76 million in bonuses since 2007,and Sempra gave its top five executives $29 million in bonuses in the year after the fires. In addition, she said, Sempra made profits of $1.1 billion last year.

“Sempra can well afford the costs of insurance and SDG&E’s failures,” Jacob said.

The District 2 supervisor also asked what incentive the utility will have to properly maintain its wires when it has an automatic public bailout for future damages.

At the start of the hearing, Michael Thorp, attorney for SDG&E, explained the WEBA and its potential impact on rates.

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Richard Zelmer of Ramona says SDG&E should just call its plan a rate increase. Sentinel photo/Karen Brainard

“Our proposal is a mechanism for possible future rate recovery of wildfire claims and litigation costs,” he said.

Those costs are not recovered from SDG&E through insurance, third parties, or federal energy regulatory commission rates, Thorp said, adding that SDG&E would need to file a separate application before any WEBA costs could be added to rates.

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