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By Miriam Raftery

Photo: New power poles in Pine Valley are made of steel, not wood, for fire safety, as part of the upgrades that SDG&E has been installing across inland San Diego County.

Updated August 23, 2020 9:40 a.m. with responses from SDG&E.

August 22, 2020 (San Diego’s East County) – Amid a record-breaking heat wave with monsoonal thunderstorms, flash floods and lightning-sparked fires forecast as potential added hazards, SDG&E has announced plans to shut off power for hours during the heat of the day on Sunday and Monday across much of San Diego County.  

The outages are to upgrade wood poles to steel, among other equipment upgrades or maintenance planned.

The NWS has warned that the intense heat  this week can be life-threatening for those without air conditioning, yet the power outage will leave any residents who lack generators without access to safe, cool spaces amid the COVID-19 pandemic when many public, air-conditioned places are shut down.

Rural residents with electric well pumps will also be left without water for people or livestock to drink, as well as for fighting fires, as many rural residents equipped with tanks and hoses have done in past brush fires, unless they have invested in generators. Downed communications including internet and in some areas, phone service also leave residents unable to receive emergency alerts despite a high potential for emergencies during the extreme weather conditions.

The National Weather Service reported that Campo had six consecutive days of all-time record heat with highs averaging 106 degrees. Yet SDG&E plans to shut off power tomorrow in Campo on Sunday, August 23 from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., as well as in Dulzura and Potrero.  The high desert communities of Jacumba, Boulevard and Live Oak Springs are also scheduled for outages from  8 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Cool zones are closed on weekends, making Sunday’s outage particularly dangerous. Many residents in these remote towns and Native American reservations live below the federal poverty line and some lack transportation to leave home.  Even for those with vehicles, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, there are no air-conditioned places opened in these areas, other than casinos or some stores.. All indoor restaurants are closed. Community centers and libraries are closed Sunday, though the Alpine library will be opened as a cool zone Monday afternoon. 

Many more communities are on the list to lose power on Monday, August 24 including parts of El Cajon, Buckman Springs, Morena Village, Japatul, Escondido, Harbison Canyon, Alpine, Warner Springs, Ranchita, Pala, Spring Valley, Rancho San Diego, Rainbow, Pala, Viejas, Descanso and Boulder Creek. 

Valley Center, Rincon, and Pauma Valley are scheduled to lose power both days.

View the full list of planned outages:

On Facebook, residents are reacting with anger and disgust.  Karen Noblitt-McIntyre wrote, “Well just got the call EVIL SDG$E is still planning on cutting power to parts of Campo. The heat and humidity, and fires this is not good we are all on wells. Makes it hard to protect yourself if you need to! Everyone stay safe.”

Dorrie Dickinson-Stutz posted, “Crazy they are turning it off when it is so hot.”

Residents in other East County communities have previously complained of problems caused by outages due to the powerline upgrades.

Michael Silva of Pine Valley recently told ECM, “We’ve had 31 outages since December.”  All but four or five of those were planned outages, he said.  Silva said he’s had repeated spoilage of food in his refrigerator as well as damage to an icemaker due to a power surge when the power finally came back on. But he worries most about vulnerable elderly and disabled residents in the backcountry who may rely on medical equipment or be left sweltering in intense heat without the means to go elsewhere.

His neighbor, Tom Biggers, had a similar story. Biggers says his power was out 32 times during the same period. Despite a generator he said he’s damage to a stove and refrigerator due to power surges after outages. He indicated that SDG&E did pay for damage, but the inconvenience of being left in sweltering heat or during winter months, frigid cold, had him feeling frosted.

SDG&E spokesperson Denice Renard told ECM at the time that some Pine Valley residents were offered generators, as well as gift cards for gas to leave the area, after residents complained.  SDG&E also added a transformer and reconfigured its system to minimize outages in Pine Valey and Guatay to fewer homes, she said.

But it’s unclear whether any such accommodations have been offered to residents of any of the many other communities set to be impacted next.

The outages also bring headaches for many people who are working from home and for school children enrolled in distance learning programs, since some districts have already started back to school.

ECM emailed SDG&E’s media relations department to ask why the planned maintenance and upgrades, which are not emergency repairs, are slated to go forward despite dangerous heat, potential flash flooding and fires, amid a pandemic when there are no designated cool zones for people to find safety. 

Helen Gao, senior communications specialist for SDG&E, sent this reply, which addressed only the Campo area concerns:

The health and safety of our customers are a top priority. As with all of our projects, we are committed to minimizing impact on our customers to the greatest extent possible.

The planned outage, as you noted, would accommodate the replacement of wood poles with steel poles, which is critical to reducing wildfire risk in our region. Wood to steel replacement work is a key element of our Wildfire Mitigation Plan, approved by the California Public Utilities Commission.

There may be some misunderstanding about the extent of the planned outage. Only a small portion of those served by circuit 448 (59 meters out of 1,116 meters on the circuit) will be affected by the planned outage, not the entire Campo community. Sometimes visitors to our outage map see their circuit number listed for a planned outage, and they assume they would be impacted. Only those on circuit 448 who have been notified will be affected tomorrow.

We recognize outages present challenges, especially during summer heat and the COVID-19 pandemic. Please also understand that SDG&E has an obligation to complete wildfire mitigation work as expeditiously as possible to protect our community from devastating wildfires.

As part of our standard practice, we provide customers advance notice so they can take action to prepare. Notices went out on Aug. 14 to Campo customers who will be affected by the planned outage. There are currently no heat advisories or warnings issued by the National Weather Service for San Diego County in the forecast.

ECM emailed back and asked why SDG&E has not coordinated with the county to set up cool zones in areas where it plans outage during hot weather.  Gao replied:

We closely monitor weather conditions and do take it into account in determining whether planned outages should be rescheduled. If there is a critical safety issue that needs immediate attention, a planned outage will proceed to accommodate repairs. For the safety of the public and the electric system, certain work cannot be postponed.

Thank you for your suggestion regarding Cool Zones. I have passed it on to the appropriate contacts at our company. I have also shared your concerns with our planned outage coordination team.

Aside from wildfire mitigation work, SDG&E is also required to conduct maintenance/repairs on the electric system in order to comply with CPUC regulations to maintain safe and reliable service. Per the outage map, many of the planned outages in the backcountry are needed to accommodate required repairs. Keeping the grid in good condition helps prevent unplanned outages, which can pose an even greater challenge, as those happen without the benefit of customers receiving prior notification to prepare.

ECM has also reached out to Supervisor Dianne Jacob’s office.

If you are slated for your power to go out, here are some preparations to consider:

  • If you have an electric garage door opener, park your vehicle outside in case you need to rune errands or evacuate, or make sure you know how to open the door manually.
  • Fully charge your cell phone and any other vital devices, such as laptop computers.
  • Have flashlights and extra batteries on hand.
  • Stay hydrated! Drink plenty of water or other cold drinks.
  • If you have a well pump, pre-pump water for your family, pets and livestocks.
  • Unplug major appliances to avoid damage from surges when power is restored.
  • Keep your freezer and refrigerator closed. For outages of more than four or five hours, consider using an ice chest to keep foods cold and avoid spoilage.
  • Make sure your vehicle has plenty of gas, since gas station pumps and credit card machines may not work when the power is out.
  • Have a radio operated by batteries or solar power to stay in communication.
  • If you feel overheated, take a cold shower or bath, provided you have access to water. Put a T-shirt in the fridge and put in on to cool down.
  • To cool down, consider a trip to an air conditioned grocery store, big-box retailer such as Home Depot or Walmart, or shops in a regional mall (such as at Viejas Outlets Center in Alpine or Grossmont Center in La Mesa, are outdoor malls with all or nearly all stores open.  Parkway Plaza in El Cajon has stores open that face outdoors only, such as department stores.
  • Be sure to check on elderly or disabled neighbors, friends and relatives in areas where power may be out.
  • If you rely on electric medical equipment and need help, contact SDG&E.

Miriam Raftery, editor and founder of East County Magazine, has over 35 years of journalism experience. She has won more than 350 journalism awards from the Society of Professional Journalists, San Diego Press Club, and the American Society of Journalists & Authors. Her honors include the Sol Price Award for responsible journalism and three James Julian awards for public interest reporting from SPJ’s San Diego chapter. She has received top honors for investigative journalism, multicultural reporting, coverage of immigrant and refugee issues, politics, breaking news and more. Thousands of her articles have appeared in national and regional publications.

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Renewable Energy isn't the Problem

There have been complaints that with little wind, wind turbines aren't supplying needed power and with overcast, neither is solar, plus solar doesn't work at night. 

In Spain there is a solar array with underground pipes containing liquid saline. During the day the solar provides electricity directly and heats the liquid saline which at night, in turn, heats water and the steam drives turbines which generate electricity. In addition, we have deserts that are almost never cloudy. Working with ecologists and designs that can reduce danger to birds and bats, we could have solar arrays with liquid saline. 

Then there is off-shore wind turbines. Denmark gets most of its electricity from them. It is highly unlikely that there would be no wind, even mild breezes, both on land and sea.

And there is wave power and geothermal power.

We have been having hotter days and longer periods of heat. Global warming is real. We should NOT be dependent on power from other states. As an extremely wealthy state, we should have been prepared. And, for those who still don't believe in global warming, the pollutants from fossil fuels have been found by credible studies to reduce the average life expectancy by two years, to cause approximately 150,000 premature deaths from respiratory disease, cardiovascular disease, and cancer and 100s of thousands with reduced quality of life, adding to our health care bills.

Finally, I have considered getting solar for my house, though far less efficient than what I discused above. However, as a senior citizen vulnerable to high heat, solar panels go off line when the grid is down. Why? I've talked to people knowledgeable about electricity and solar power and home solar systems could be designed to recognize when the grid is down and, for instance, any excess electricity could safely be directed into the ground as with lightening rods.

SDG&E is a monopoly. In 2000 we were told that by deregulating it, we would get competition, lower prices, better service, etc. Instead we got intentional rolliing blackouts and brownouts to drive up the price. Now we can choose among a few suppliers of electricity; but SDG&E owns the grid. I have seen annual reports of their profits, on the whole going up every years as well as salaries of their executives. During the 2000 nightmare, Los Angeles, Sacramento, and other cities who own their own electrical had NO brownouts nor blackouts and even made money selling excess electricity. JD Powers has given, for instance, Sacramento's electrical the highest ratings by consumers over several years and their rates are lower than ours. 

I believe in markets where there is true competition and a real independent arbiter; but with only one power grid and scandal after scandal involving the California Public Utility Commission, San Diego County should create an independent branch and be totally responsible for electricity. Electricity is a public good, something that doesn't fit into a market model.