SDG&E RESPONDS TO OUTAGE CONCERNS, BUT LEGISLATORS HUESO AND VOEPEL IGNORE INQUIRIES

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By Miriam Raftery

Photo by Dennis Richardson

December 19, 2017 (San Diego’s East County) – SDG&E has responded to our inquiry seeking answers to questions raised by concerned readers during planned outages to 17,000 SDG&E customers due to last week’s high winds, which ECM reported on here and here.

Helen Gao,  communications manager for Sempra Energy,  parent company of SDG&E,  sent the following reply to our questions on topics including loss claims, factors that determine when to shut off power, people with medical needs, support for residents during outages in need of water and communications, adjusting bills to eliminate charges during outages, and what might be done in communities with repeated outages to reduce or eliminate that need in the future.

Below is her response in full, followed by comments from rural residents with contrasting opinions on the outages:

Let me see if I can address the bulk of your questions. But before I begin with responses, I first want to say that we understand losing power is incredibly inconvenient. And as it relates to turning off power for safety, we do it only as a last resort for the safety of us all. 

Regarding your questions about claims after a power outage, any customer who feels they have suffered a loss or damage due to service interruption and believe we may be responsible, can submit a claim to SDG&E.

SDG&E processes claims according to 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 what we experienced this past week. SDG&E has a legal obligation to abide by tariffs, or rules, that prevent payment for damages, such as food spoilage.

However, if a customer feels that we are at fault for their loss, they may file a claim. SDG&E investigates all claims in an objective and professional manner. Each claim is evaluated based on its own merits. We require specific documentation, such as sales receipts and accounting records, to support and verify any alleged loss.

Once a claim is received, SDG&E will respond within 3-5 business days to start an investigation and request additional information, if necessary.

Regarding your questions about de-energization and public safety, due to last week’s extreme fire risk conditions, including high winds and low humidity, SDG&E turned off power to approximately 17,000 customers in affected areas to protect public safety. There were other outages related to the Lilac Fire, but that is not listed above since that wasn’t your question.

Some of the factors that are taken into consideration when turning off power include but are not limited to the circumstances of the emergency, wind speed measurements, temperature, humidity, field observations by SDG&E crews, and information from Cal Fire and other fire agencies. De-energization is a last resort to protect lives and communities, and it’s not a decision that we make lightly. We understand it’s incredibly inconvenient.

To restore power as quickly as possible, we pre-stage crews and resources ahead of de-energization. For public safety, crews always inspect our facilities for damage before restoring power.

Specific to your question from a resident about power outages since late September, if you’ll recall you inquired about this in late October and we provided a response which you ran. I reinserted that for reference:  https://www.eastcountymagazine.org/sdge-responds-residents%E2%80%99-concerns-over-descanso-power-outages

For medically sensitive customers, called Medical Baseline customers, we have a special process for alerting these customers during de-energization or emergency situations. Specifically, we use an automated calling system to call each customer impacted. If a customer is not reached or if a message is left, a list of customers is generated so that a live call can be made by our Customer Contact Center or other groups. If a live representative cannot get a hold of the customer, then a field service order is generated to have a representative go to the customer’s home and deliver the message.

Regarding your questions about community resources and donations made on behalf of the company to support customers, SDG&E set up mobile command centers in the Descanso, Fallbrook, and Lake Morena areas. The centers provided bottled water to customers and served as wi-fi hotspots. Upon requests from some residents visiting the centers, we also brought in water trucks so people were able to fill up tanks for their livestock.

SDG&E also worked with the American Red Cross to set up Community Centers for impacted customers. As you know, one of the considerations that has to be made about where centers are located is that they are not in an area that is likely to be evacuated. And, in response to the evacuation of horses to the Del Mar Fairgrounds, we delivered four tons of feed for the horses sheltered there.

You asked about customers being charged when their power was out. SDG&E will not bill customers for power during outages. Please understand 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).

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.

And finally, you had questions about infrastructure upgrades. We’ve implemented many improvements over the past 10 years to protect the power grid and enhance fire preparedness. Check out the wildfire preparedness section of our NewsCenter: http://www.sdgenews.com/wildfire-preparedness. You also asked about the Boulevard area specifically. I encourage you to look at this Web page, which speaks to the significant work we have done in that area: https://www.sdge.com/key-initiatives/eco-substation/eco-substation-project.

Thanks for your questions.

SDG&E has said the outages are to prevent lines or other equipment from sparking fires, as occurred in the 2007 firestorms. The California Public Utilities Commission recently ruled that the utility cannot charge ratepayers for its uninsured losses.

Residents impacted by the outages don’t all agree on whether planned outages are a good idea or not.

Paul Cummings is a resident of the Descanso area. He writes in an e-mail to ECM, “You might have noticed the anger towards SDGE that they seem to be too conservative in de-energizing. There are a few posters who apparently didn't follow the long story since 2007 that lead to the creation of the criteria.”

He adds, “I'm all for it, better to be inconvenienced than burned out.  But for days on end, I can understand the inconvenience, medical necessity, water pumps, etc reasons for the anger.” He wants to see the specific criteria for shut-offs – ie actual wind speeds, humidity and temperature levels that trigger the outages, to post on the Descanso Neighbors Facebook Page.

But Leslie Mauris of Boulevard, which has endured multiple outages lasting a full week, is angry over the situation.

In an e-mail to ECM sent last week, she wrote that she submitted a food loss claim and was told her claim was denied due to the controlled power outage. “SDG&E will not cover any food loss or damage to household electronic equipment," Mauris writes."This is the same thing I have heard for 25 year(s). No replacement will be made due to weather…act of God or nature. Now for safety reasons base(d) on high winds.”

She notes that SDG&E says that turning power off was “for our safety. But what about no water from wells, no stores to buy food or gas for generators?”  she asks, adding, “and once again fire department had no outside resource for water for fire.”

As for SDG&E, she states, “The least they could do is comp us for food loss. I just got another call power being shut off again 12/14/17 4:30 am Thursday to Friday. Just bought new food. What the heck do I need to replace again?”

Mauris says that many residents in Boulevard, an area with a high poverty rate, are very upset with SDG&E’s policy and handling of losses, adding, “Seems to me brown outs are the only other way to apply for replacement of lost goods and house hold electronics. So much for reliable electric. What a joke!”

Other residents posted new concerns on social media, including potential loss of property value if repeated outages continue to occur frequently, as well as vulnerability to thieves when outages cause home alarm systems to fail.

ECM  also reached out during the outages to  Assemblymembers Ben Hueso and Randy Voepel, who represent most of the areas with repeated outages (outside of the Lilac Fire zone where fire impacted equipment) to ask their thoughts on their consituents' concerns over safety issues with power off for extended periods.  Senator Hueso also  chairs a state Senate committee that oversees utility companies.

Neither office has replied to our inquiries. You can find their contact information in our legislative directory here:  http://www.eastcountymagazine.org/0809soundoff.