By Miriam Raftery
October 31, 2019 (San Diego) – A day after Governor Gavin Newsom ordered the California Public Utilities Commission to create tough new rules limiting mass outages by utilities seeking to limit their liability for fires and mandating compensation for ratepayers, PG&E announced it will credit its ratepayers for blackouts, Newsom announced. But San Diego Gas & Electric is refusing to do the same.
In respond to East County Magazine’s inquiry, SDG&E communications manager Wes Jones responded yesterday, ““SDG&E is not processing any bill credits. SDG&E abides by rules set by the California Public Utilities Commission, which regulates how we operate. Per that process, SDG&E is not liable for circumstances beyond our control, including weather conditions like those we have been experiencing this month. SDG&E has a legal obligation to abide by tariffs, or rules, that prevent payment for damages, such as food spoilage.”
While SDG&E refuses to compensate ratepayers during a Public Safety Power Shutoff done to prevent wildfires during windy conditions, the utility will accept claims for losses during planned outages for other purposes, such as repairs.
“We do approve claims if the investigation reveals we were at fault,” Jones told ECM, referring to planned outages not due to wildfire concerns. “An example would be if we have a planned outage for maintenance work from 1am – 6am, but the work extended beyond the stated timeframe. As a result, we may be liable for food losses. We would evaluate all of the circumstances, including why the work took longer than the period specified, how much longer it lasted, and other relevant facts. We require specific documentation, such as sales receipts and accounting records, to support and verify any alleged loss.”
But for those local ratepayers left in the dark for days at a time, in some cases repeatedly due to planned outages, that’s no help, leaving residents powerless in more ways than one.
As of this morning, 19,000 San Diego County residents remain without power amid dangerous high-fire risk conditions—and many have voiced smoldering rage at the situation.
“I woke up this morning once again in a hotel room with my family,”Alpine resident Lou Russo wrote in an email to Supervisor Dianne Jacob, “because with no electricity we have no heat, no water.” Russo also voiced anger at SDG&E being allowed to “continue to charge us usage while there is no power being provided” while residents in Alpine, where fire services were recently shifted from the dissolved volunteer Rural Fire Protection District to the Alpine Fire District, pay a higher fire fee and higher fire insurance premiums
In Lakeside, retired firefighter Barry Treahy, who previously lost a home to a wildfire, wrote in an e-mail to ECM, “ In our case here, we are seniors and have a 10,000 gallon water tank on our property for firefighting purposes only, and required installed at our expense. The same is true on the fire resistive construction of our house that also includes a fully sprinklered house and garage, that is dependent upon power to run the well pump to active water fire sprinklers. You shut off our power, you take away our "required" fire protection, and I see this as a probably utility service liability matter.”
At a townhall in Julian last Friday, held during power outages across East County as a fire burned in Ramona, Supervisor Dianne Jacob also criticized the shut-offs including some done in areas where she said she observed “little or no wind.”
“Two thirds of East County depends on wells,” she said,noting that during outages, residents have no way to get water, including to fight fires. She wants to see SD&GE provide generators as mitigation but also faulted the utility for shutting off power instead of fire-hardening lines and undergrounding more lines at an accelerated timetable. “It’s all about the money,” she said.
Outages also leave some residents without communication when computers and phones dependent on electricity fail; even cell service has been lost in some areas due to outages, raising the risk of residents not receiving evacuation notices if a fire occurs. Power shut-offs also slow evacuation when traffic signals go out and cause other problems, such as forcing shutdowns of eight rural school districts today.
SDG&E spokesman Eugene “Mitch” Mitchell said SDG&E already undergrounds 60% of its lines, more than any other utility district in the nation, and plans to do more in the future though rocky terrain prevents undergrounding in some areas. Supervisor Jacob said she will ask the state to waive some environmental requirements to allow SDG&E to complete upgrades that would limit outages at a faster pace.
For the latest information on local outages anticipated or in progress, visit www.SDGE.com.