By Miriam Raftery
Updated September 6, 2018 with response from SDG&E
September 4, 2018 (San Diego's East County) -- Supervisor Dianne Jacob has sent a letter to California Public Utilities Chairman Michael Picker requesting a formal investigation and independent review by the agency into San Diego Gas & Electric’s decision to shut off power to thousands of San Diego County residents during recent Santa Ana winds, ostensibly to prevent power lines from sparking fires.
In an email to ECM, a CPUC spokesman has confirmed that the regulatory agency will conduct an investigation into the intentional outages.
Jacob writes, “My office has received numerous letters, e-mails and phone calls from concerned citizens regarding their power being shut off with very little warning and when winds were mild. “ She adds, “SDG&E acted irresponsibly and, potentially, retaliatory, when they shut off power to over 19,000 residents in San Diego’s backcountry. SDG&E provided little notice to residents and kept the power off in many communities for several days. SDG&E’s rational was to keep residents safe, but instead SDG&E’s actions left residents in even more danger,” the Supervisor contends.
She questions whether the utility’s actions were truly necessary as a “last resort” to prevent wildfires and whether the actions fall within the scope of immunity from liability, since the utility has denied claims for damages even from residents who submitted receipts for food spoiled during prolonged outages.
Jacob notes that SDG&E is required by General Order 95 to design, construct and maintain its power-line facilities to operate safely under Santa Ana winds that the CPUC has previously noted are regularly occurring conditions. She suggests that the company is shutting off power instead of designing and maintaining its equipment to withstand strong winds here.
She submitted letters from constituents documenting many serious and even life-threatening problems created by the prolonged, extended and repeated planned outages, which occurred days after the CPUC ruled that SDG&E cannot charge ratepayers for its uninsured losses during three of the 2007 firestorms that state inspectors found were caused by SDG&E lines.
“Residents were left with no electricity to run their wells, which are used for drinking water and for fighting wildfires,” Jacob’s letter states. Residents with medical devices were left to fend for themselves for days with no response from SDG&E on when the power would be turned back on. Residents with animals and farms were left with no way to provide food and water to their livestock.” She concludes, “These risky decisions by SDG&E left thousands of San Diegans in grave danger…”
She also objects to SDG&E rejected claims for business losses, lost wages by workers, and food spoilage. “Business owners and homeowners need protection for their property and well-being, especially for many residents of the backcountry who live and work on a fixed income,” Jacob states, adding, “Many residents, including myself, also question SDG&E’s motives, especially following the recent decision by the CPUC to finally hold SDG&E accountable for the 2007 firestorm.”
CPUC responds to ECM inquiry; confirms that an investigation will be conducted to review SDG&E’s actions
East County Magazine contacted Christopher Chow, public information offer at the California Public Utilities Commission ((CPUC) regarding concerns raised by Jacob and local residents concerned about the repeated intentional outages.
Chow replied via e-mail, “If a utility de-energizes, the CPUC expects that such action was due to an emergency or to prevent a major event that could result in unsafe conditions. We have a staff investigation in progress into the fires and as part of the investigation we will review SDG&E’s actions, including pro-active shut-off of power, to make sure that the utility acted prudently.”
Chow notes that CPUC Decision 12-04-024, issued April 26, 2012 gave SDG&E authority under Public Utilities Code sections 399.2(a) and 451 to shut off power in emergency situations when necessary to protect public safety, including a situation where strong Santa Ana winds exceed the design basis for SDG&E’s overhead power-line facilities and threaten to topple energized power lines onto tinder dry brush.
But Chow adds, “If SDG&E choses to de-energize it must notify the CPUC and must submit to the CPUC (i) an explanation of SDG&E’s decision to shut off power; (ii) all factors considered by SDG&E in its decision to shut off power, including wind speed, temperature, humidity, and vegetation moisture in the vicinity of the de-energized circuits; (iii) the time, place, and duration of the power shutoff event; (iv) the number of affected customers, broken down by residential, medical baseline, commercial/industrial, and other; (v) any wind-related damage to SDG&E’s overhead power-line facilities in the areas where power is shut off; (vi) a description of the customer notice and any other mitigation provided by SDG&E; and (vii) any other matters that SDG&E believes are relevant to the CPUC ’s assessment of the reasonableness of SDG&E’s decision to shut off power. “
Asked about SDG&E’s denial of damage claims such as food spoilage, however, Chow replied, “ The CPUC does not have jurisdiction over claims.”
Residents voice frustration
Fire Captain Jeff Johnson, a federal firefighter, voiced concerns in a letter to Supervisor Jacob that the prolonged outages put residents’ safety at risk. “We are going on 48 hours without power,” he wrote, adding that winds had stopped. “Wells don’t work without power,” he said, voicing concern for livestock including horses, pigs, goats, sheep and chickens that require water daily. “We cannot even protect our own property if something happens or refill our mandatory firefighting water tank.”
Jerry Cruson, a retired County Department of Planning and Land Use employee and Julian resident, says his home has an interior sprinkler system that is electrically powered with a booster pump due to hilly terrain to augment low water pressure. “I am absolutely sure that our home sprinkler system would be reduced to a trickle without the booster pump,” he told Jacob in an e-mail.
Libby Pounds, a Julian resident, says her young children’s health was put at risk by the outages. “As a mom of twin toddlers going on our second night with no power,” she wrote on December 8 to Supervisor Jacob, “I can’t help but feel frustrated. “My sons were born very premature and utilize their nebulizer every night to keep their lungs strong. This will be our second night with no breathing treatments.” She says she doesn’t own a generator, adding, “Not everyone can afford one.” She’s also had food spoilage.
Hillary Hankey, who lives near Lake Wohlford, says her power was off nearly 48 hours. “This is very frightening to us. Our cell service suffers, as does our access to internet, which we of course rely on for fire updates.” She also voiced frustration that despite SDG&E updating lines for years to make power lines safer, outages are now occurring regularly. “I feel at far greater danger without power and have no access to information. ..This does not help first responders either, who are then charged with keeping all of us in the know by going door to door.”
Dean Dahl writes that power has been off for her family members in Wynola, Julian and Valley Center. “Than God folks haven’t needed their wells to fight fires this time.” Dahl wants to see generators provided to residents and financed by SDG&E, as well as manual transfer switches with zero interests as a condition for allowing the utility to shut off power on purpose.
Kathy Tonsgard in Campo wrote to Jacob to state that her power remained off despite “no wind at all in this whole area” by the next day. “We have horses and I really need to go to work but can’t leave with no water.”
Al Alamo in rural Vista told Jacob his area has little or no cell phone coverage. “Even over the air radio signals are problematic for us. During an emergency the only means that we have of being notified of an evacuation is our land line telephone and either TV or the Internet. During SDG&E power outage we were completely cut off” with no communications working, he said.
Fred Heske of Alpine wants to know why his power was shut down even though power lines in the area are underground. He says of SDG&E, “their actions are outrageous and a complete disregard for their customers as well.”
Santa Ysabel resident Sami Collins was without power for four and a half days even in low wind conditions, she says, adding that this meant not being able to shower, wash dishes or clothes. She voiced anger that she received a “proposed rate increase included in our latest utilities notification.” The outage meant she also couldn’t access the Internet to do her work and had to travel elsewhere, lost food, and has now felt forced to order a generator that cost $1,100. “I think such costs warrant rebates.” She adds, “PG&E of the San Francisco Bay Area does not institute such power shutoffs during high winds,” and quotes PGE&E’s reasoning: “These actions [controlled outages’ affect first responders and the operation of critical facilities such as hospitals, schools, water pumps and other essential services needed in response to any emergency, and especially in response to wildfires.” She argues that “all electrical companies should be investing their wildfire prevention efforts in grounding their lines—not leaving half of the county in the dark.” She adds that she is mobilizing her community on the issue.
Kathy Mehelic of Ramona said her power was off for 33 hours, came back up and went out again for 46 more hours. “I have checked the outage maps on the SDG&E website and they absolutely do not reflect that.”
Julian resident Kiki Skagen Munshi told Jacob that according to SDG&E’s weather predictions on its website on December 10th, current conditions were listed as “moderate” in her area, yet the Banner/Harrison Park area was predicted to be extreme. “Harrison Park has power and we don’t. Can we trust this utility and the accuracy of its data? Apparently not,” Munshi concluded. In another email, she observes, “Ceausescu used to turn off the power in communist Romania when I was serving there; this reminds me of that misuse of a monopoly.”
Wayne Hallett of Warner Springs advised Jacob that his community of over 500 senior citizens were left with no heat in cold weather, no sanitary service, no water, food destroyed and communications shut down. “Our HOA has spent thousands of dollars trying to keep things working” adding residents have suffered “mental stress of the highest degree.” He notes that by shutting off power “fire companies have no place to get water” in the backcountry. He accuses SDG&E of “using power as punishment for them losing a lawsuit…who has used shutting power as punishment/terror? Saddam, North Korea, Assad and now SDG&E.” He asked, “What good is it to have a PUC if they fail to regulate?”
Alpine resident Lawrence Cahill complained that SDG&E “cut the power after most residents had gone to work and no preparations could be made. After losing all refrigerated products we restocked the refrigerator; SDG&E again threatens to cut the pwer. This is unreasonable as it places unnecessary burdens on those with medical issues, and human necessities.”
“My home was without power 6 out of 7 days,” writes Sherilton Valley resident Raylene Phipps Markwell.” She says she asked SDG&E to restore power when winds were calm but they would not. “I lost all the food in my freezer and refrigerator…I have animals who depend on the electricity for water from our well. And if we had a fire, because we don’t have electricity we could only fight the fire until our tanks ran out.”
Donna Sinema of Julian says, “On any given day, the weather looks exactly like it does today.” She enumerated hardships suffered due to the planned outages: “People have lost food, people have spent money they didn’t have to stay warm, people have spent money that they had set aside for Christmas, and there is no end in sight. I was down in Ramona yesterday” she wrote on Dec. 10 “where the winds were twice as bad as they are up here and the entire town still had electricity…my husband who is a member of the military had to take time off from work to come up here and fix the mess that SDGE created.”
Michael Fryer lives at a high elevation near Harrison Park. “My concern is that this will become a regular occurrence every time it’s windy. It’s always pretty wind up at 4500 feet!”
Gregory Dohm, whose family has lived in Julian’s Pine Hills area since the ‘70s, says, “We have never had to put up with such an unnecessary hardship of having no power in our home for extended periods” with the exception of after the Cedar Fire, when his home burned. “The latest winds are not the worst we have experienced,” he said, noting that SDG&E has been active in replacing wood poles with metal and new, stronger wiring. Despite this, he writes to Jacob that in the past year and a half “we have had more power outages than I can ever remember” including during extreme heat last summer for energy alerts as well as planned and unplanned outages recently. “SDG&E is playing games with our lives, and our livelihoods, under the guise of ‘safety,;” he believes,” adding that he and his neighbors are filing formal complaints with the CPUC.
Ellen Maisen in Valley Center says her family has a farm and not only lost water for irrigation, but sources of water for firefighters.
Gregory Silva of Descanso says he lost power for 32 hours. He suggested SDG&E is targeting poor communities that can’t fight back, adding, “My opinion is power would never be cut off in communities like Rancho Santa Fe or La Jolla...” He objects to “the discriminatory and politically driven unfairness” of shutting off rural residents from power when they depend on electricity for water and emergency communications access, as well as obvious risks to the unhealthy and elderly folks.” He wants to see the criteria for shut-offs posted and also believes SDG&E should “bury lines in high risk areas,” a prospect that would be very costly. But he notes Sempra is very profitable, adding, “They made $1.27 billion in profit in 2016….They can spend some of that profit that they make updating and maintaining their transmission lines.” In addition he proposes imposing fines if SDG&E fails to restore power within four hours of wind conditions improving. He also wants an independent authority to determine when power should be turned off and restored to avoid a “serious conflict of interest” that he believes SDG&E has.
Joseph Ruhl of Jacumba Hot Springs lost power for 34 hours. “I am a 70 year old ma, lived in many states in my life and SDG&E has the highest rates that I have ever seen, anywhere,” he writes.
G. Courbison of Julian wrote a letter by candlelight to Jacob stating he’s using his wood stove to keep warm and considers himself self reliant. But he wrote to voice concern for an elderly woman he met at a local market who worried she couldn’t flush her toilet with her well pump out.
Descanso resident Sharon Scott told ECM that she submitted a claim for food spoiled. “I took pictures. I had my grocery store receipts,” she says. But despite providing documentation for hundreds of dollars in losses, Scott says she received a call from an SDG&E representative who identified himself merely as “John.” According to Scott, the SDG&E representative advised her that SDG&E will not be paying any claims for spoiled food caused by the intentional outages, claiming that “it was an act of God,” Scott told ECM.
Lou Russo of Alpine confirms that he, too, received a call from a John Wiedenhoff at SDG&E after initiating a claim for food loss. “He informed me that under the CPUC rules they are not liable and will not reimburse us,” he states in an email sent to media outlets including ECM and to lawmakers including Supervisors and State Senator Joel Anderson.
Julie Salmons, also from Descanso, confirmed in an email to Jacob that claims for food spoilage are being denied. She notes that many Descanso residents are low income and rely on Feeding San Diego for food; they cannot afford to replace what was lost. Even if claims were allowed with receipts, that would still pose problems for many rural residents, she says. “Many of our residents fish, hunt and grow and butcher their own meat, so there would be no way to claim this as SDG&E requires grocery receipts. Water is also not included although without well pumps a lot of water had to be purchased. My neighbor lost an incubator full of eggs that should hve hatched into 12 chickens who would become layers and meat…I had a lot of freezer jam from berries I grew; there is no receipt for that.”
Salmons writes that left in the dark with no communications proved particularly frighting for some mountain residents because “while this particular outage was happening, we were experiencing earthquakes, not to mention a small lfire that started on Japaul exit with smoke visible.” She also voiced concerns about people driving around with gas tanks for generators or leaving flammable gas cans in their yards, also lighting fires in fireplaces to provide heat. “Not too safe.” One neighbor with a herd of goats and three children lost power for six days. On a neighborhood Facebook page, residents were urged to check on neighbors who were cut off. “We are finding people who couldn’t get their generators running, people out of water and low on food, people scared because without power they get no TV coverage to know what is going on.” Though SDG&E did bring bottled water and wifi and chargers at a park and ride, it was “too late” and there was “no way to get word out to those who really need it without driving to each one’s home and knocking on their doors. And the water? How many of those 8 oz. bottles will it take to water one horse?” She called not providing disabled and elderly residents, along with others, a means to communicate “cruel” adding, “forcing animals to ration water is abuse.”
Michael Ing lost power repeatedly at Harrison Park and has been running generators to get by. But he says “No winds here except hot air from SDG&E.” He is looking to a permanent solution by going off grid. “I am done. Adding batteries and cutting line to SDG&E.”
In response to our request for comment on Jacob’s request for an investigation or our questions on outage related issues raised by residents for this article, Alison Torres, SDG&E's communications manager sent the following response:
"At SDG&E, our highest priority is protecting the safety of the communities we serve. Contrary to what Supervisor Jacob stated in her letter to the CPUC, SDG&E does in fact have CPUC authority to shut off power in emergency situations when necessary to protect public safety. (Link to decision)
"Last month, we experienced extreme weather conditions creating dangerous fire conditions throughout the region. During the extended Red Flag Warning, winds speeds reached upwards of 80 mph in some of the most fire-prone areas of the county and humidity was in the single digits. And, the Santa Ana Wildfire Threat Index, which provides a ‘rating’ system for the potential of wildfires fueled by these strong seasonal winds, reached its highest level since its development. The actions we took to de-energize power were to protect public safety."
Torres says making the decision to turn off power for safety is a "very tough, complicated decision because we recognize its implications to our customers. We are committed to ensuring that our electrical equipment does not serve as an ignition source for fires. During any emergency activation, SDG&E is always in close coordination with the CPUC providing constant updates. Last month was no different. We will continue to provide information to the CPUC for the safety of our customers."
She noted that as ECM has previously reported, over the past several years, SDG&E has made significant improvements to its electric grid when it comes to wildfire preparedness, but added, "When dangerous fire conditions are present, it is hard to prevent a tarp from a neighbor’s backyard whipping through the 80 mph wind gusts directly into power lines, creating an ignition. This is an example of the type of conditions our pre-staged crews are looking for that could pose a threat to the integrity of our system. With no power flowing through that power line, an ignition source is eliminated, protecting our communities from the potential of another catastrophic wildfire."
Torres concludes, "Again, our main objective it the safety of the communities we serve. SDG&E employees call this community home too – it’s where we go to work, it’s where we send our kids to school, it’s where we volunteer our time to help others – we have a personal stake and take our obligation to protect public safety very seriously."
Info on electric bills during outages
Supervisor Jacob's later stated that some residents have complained that they were billed for power during the outage. Torres told ECM that "the Supervisor asked us about this last month and we responded to her. We let her know that SDG&E will not bill customers for power during outages. There is a delay in data transmitting from smart meters to customers’ MyAccount online. Our meter management system will estimate the usage data until power is restored to the meters, and they start communicating again. Once the meters are energized, they will provide the actual usage data (i.e., zero over the course of the outage)."
But she added that due to the length of the outage in some cases, "automated retry attempts to capture prior days’ data will not work, so we will identify and manually attempt to capture the data just before the billing cycle for those customers affected."
The utility urges medically sensitive customers to sign up for SDG&E’s Medical Baseline program to receive special alerts during emergencies and power shut-offs. Customers will be called and if not reached, a field service representative will visit the customer’s home, Helen Gao, communications manager for Sempra Energy, SDG&E's parent company, has previously told ECM.