SUPERVISORS URGE CPUC TO PULL PLUG ON SDG&E PLAN TO SHUT OFF POWER DURING HIGH FIRE RISK DAYS

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""There is no evidence that the shut-off plan will prevent fires. But...in a matter of hours, we will be left without electricity and our customers will be left without water...SDG&E will create actual emergencies," - Jennifer Healy, Padre Dam Municipal Water District

 

By Miriam Raftery

ECU Intern Kyle Sezian also contributed to this story

June 23, 2009 (San Diego)—“The risks to life and property are higher with the power shut off than without it,” Supervisor Dianne Jacob said at a hearing today on whether or not SDG&E should be allowed to shut off power to up to 60,000 area residents during dry, windy, fire-prone conditions. By a 4-0 vote, the San Diego County Board of Supervisors passed a motion asking the California Public Utilities Commission to reject SDG&E’s proposal.

SDG&E claims shutting off power during hot, dry, windy days is necessary to prevent firestorms. The utility faces litigation and has admitted in CPUC documents that its lines have been implicated in 167 fires over the past five and a half years.

 

Jacob opened the hearing by asking fellow Supervisors to imagine a fire starting in the middle of the night from a cause other than power lines. “Reverse 911 would not work,” she said, noting that emergency regional communications, TV, radio and the Internet would all be cut-off. Electric garage doors would not work, leaving some people trapped. Police would have to direct traffic and electronically controlled fuel pumps wouldn’t work, leaving people unable to fill tanks with gas to evacuate. Key stakeholders including the County Office of Education, water and public safety authorities, and major telecommunications companies all oppose SDG&E's plan, she noted--and many testified to dangers that the plan would pose to the public.

Jennifer Healy of the Padre Dam Municipal Water District, which serves much of East County, said bluntly, “If SDG&E assumes the privileges of a monopoly, it must also assume the responsibilities. There is no evidence that the shut-off plan will prevent any fires.” But if power is shut-off, she warned, “In a matter of hours,we will run out of power and our customers will be left without water during the hottest part of the year.” She added, “SDG&E will create actual emergencies." Then she revealed, "SDG&E is seeking a Rule 14 change so it will not be liable for any injuries or deaths that result,” she revealed. “They have no plan for the devastating impacts on water districts, school districts, and telecommunication networks.”

Jacob and others called for SDG&E to underground lines in windy areas, cut back vegetation near power lines, space lines farther apart to prevent sparking between lines, and substitute metal poles for wood poles instead of resorting to turning off the power when the risk of fire from all causes is high.

“Just about every opportunity to help people escape a fire relies on some type of electric device,” Supervisor Pam Slater-Price observed, noting spotty cell phone service in the backcountry. She also raised concern about cutting off pumps in the backcountry. “Without them, we will be unable to fight fires. This makes no sense…Most water district oppose this. They will have no weapons to put out a fire.”

She added, “We need to rely more on new types of electricity—solar and photovoltaic.” Such energy sources would reduce fossil fuel usage but also be freely accessible and “give people control over our own destiny,” Slater-Price said, adding pointedly, “It looks to me like SDG&E is trying to shift blame onto the Board of Supervisor. SDG&E needs to take care of its own house.”

Supervisor Bill Horn said the proposal puts a lot of people at risk, recalling how electricity helped him fill a water truck and enabled TV broadcasts to warn people in Valley Center to evacuate during the Paradise Fire. “We were totally isolated,” he said, noting that I-15 was closed north of Rancho Bernardo.

Only two people testified on behalf of SDG&E's position.

SDG&E representative J.C. Thomas argued that “spacing out lines and changing wood poles to metal is not enough.” He stated that five key conditions (low moisture in twigs, low moisture in living plants, humidity less than 10%, wind gusts of 55 mph, and a National Weather Service Red Flag Warning would all have to be in place to trigger proactive power outages. He estimated such outages would occur twice a year on average, and that he believed it unlikely than more than 30,000 people would be impacted by a single event. Outages could run 12 to 72 hours and would be necessary to prevent flying debris from hitting power lines and igniting a fire, he argued.

Patsy Fritz, columnist for the Valley Roadrunner, also supported the measure. She said she knew two people who died in recent fires and that she’s heard “enough of this whining about having no power.” She urged people to stock up on flashlights, portable radios and generators. Responding to a San Diego Union-Tribune article this week that noted people testifying on SDG&E’s behalf at recent hearings have been found to be former SDG&E employees or have other financial ties, Fritz quipped, “I do have a financial connection to SDG&E. Every month, I do pay my bill.”

Twenty-three people testified against the measure and another seven registered opposition without testifying.

James Esterbrooks from the San Diego County Office of Education said SDG&E has refused to provide advance notice to schools. without power, schools would be unable to summon emergency services if a student was injured. Schools would also lose ADA (average daily attendance money) and the safe evacuation of children in a fire could not be assured without communications. The shut-off proposal poses “health and safety risks to school children,” he concluded.

An AT&T representative said a power outage could cut-off communications to up to 150,000 people.

Donna Tisdale, Chair of the Boulevard Planning Group, called the plan “discriminatory” against backcountry residents. SDG&E’s call for area residents to buy generators poses new hazards from dangerously stored fuels, she noted. Tisdale said she priced out the cost of generators and switches for her property. “It would cost over $15,000,” she said, adding that a simple generator “would not run a well.”

A water district official said all rural water districts require pumps and wells. “We never planned for wholesale back-up generation of wide swaths,” he said, adding that if the proposal is approved, water districts would be forced to incur huge costs to provide water for the community. He called the plan “ill-conceived” to benefit “SDG&E’s bottom line.”

A Ramona woman testified that 45,000 people in Ramona would have been unable to evacuate without electricity to power everything from power signals to cell phones. Ramona had a difficult time evacuating even with power on, she noted. Moreover, she observed, “Under SDG&E’s plan, the power wouldn’t have been shut off until 19 hours after the Cedar Fire started,” once the fire was out of control. “It would have shut off 50 pump stations in the Witch Fire.”

Rudy Reyes, a Cedar Fire victim burned over 60% of his body, said he requires air condition “or I could seriously have a stroke or die.”

Denis Traficante of Santa Ysabel said the proposal is “all about money.” He noted that in a recent court case, SDG&E was ordered to pay $900 million to fire victims and reserve another $200 million for future events. “They are doing everything possible to stay insured,” he said.

Another Cedar Fire victim said in his rural valley, deaths could have reached 170 if a power shut-off had prevented communications via cell phone to warn neighbors of the need to evacuate. He called SDG&E’s plan “irresponsible at best.” Supervisor Ron Roberts, who left before the vote after the hearing spilled over into the lunch hour, said he believes the region should have a shut-off plan but that SDG&E “should not unilaterally be making that decision.” He said he believes a shut-off decision should be made by the County’s emergency response team instead.

Ed Clark, an electrical engineer specializing in power line issues, said he was not aware of any other utility in the nation that has asked to shut down power lines during fire-prone conditions. “If the lines are designed properly and lines are maintained with limbs removed, the danger could be significantly reduced,” he said. “In my opinion, the Cedar, Paradise and Witch Fires never should have taken place.” He said SDG&E, Cal-Fire and the PUC have refused to address dangerous issues regarding down-guy wires attached by a single bolt without insulators on wood poles, and suggested the agencies’ personnel lack technical expertise to assess the danger. “I will not go along with an intentional corporate cover-up at the expense of the people of San Diego County,” Clark said.

George Courser testified that if lines had been undergrounded previously, the Witch, Rice and Guejito fires would not have occurred. He called SDG&E’s efforts to make citizens invest in private protection “a third world approach.”

East County Magazine editor Miriam Raftery told Supervisors that if power is shut-off, ECM's emergency wildfire and emergency alerts would not reach many readers--putting lives in danger.

Others expressed fear that shutting off power will harm disabled people on respirators or other medical equipment.

Diane Conklin from the Mussey Grade Road Alliance in Ramona noted the irony of SDG&E supporting 211 when its proposed power outages would prevent people from dialing 211 in a stressful situation. She summed up the sentiments of many East County residents by concluding that a power outage during a crisis “could be a matter of death.”

Supervisor Bill Horn agreed, noting that SDG&E is a “monopoly responsible for an awful lot of people’s lives—and I think they need to be responsible to keep the power on.”