San Diego Union Tribune Op-Ed: The PUC Should Deny This Plan Outright


By:  Diane Conklin and Joseph Mitchell, May 10, 2009

The shut-off plan is widely disliked — not because it can’t work but because it works for SDG&E instead of for its customers.

San Diego Gas & Electric’s proposed plan to shut off electricity in swaths of the backcountry during periods of high fire danger is, ironically and unhappily, likely to cause more fire danger — not less. That is because the plan does not take into account the risks of cutting power.

Furthermore, SDG&E wants to shift liability for the consequences of shutting off power from itself to us, the ratepayers.

SDG&E’s shut-off plan is widely disliked — not because shut-off can’t work at all, but because this plan works for SDG&E instead of for its customers, a criticism echoed by the majority of parties engaged in the ongoing California Public Utilities Commission proceedings.

Almost half of the blazes in California’s October 2007 firestorm were attributed to power lines. A paper presented at a recent scientific conference showed that the number of power line fires can be expected to increase significantly as wind speed rises. Shutting off power in extreme winds would prevent potential future catastrophic power line fires, but that is only part of the story.

The other part is this: Electricity makes us safer. Electrical power is crucial to residents and fire services. It helps us to communicate, to pump water to defend our homes and to evacuate if necessary. During moderate winds, 99 percent of fires are not started by power lines. Because every fire under those conditions would be more dangerous if power is shut off, the cumulative risk of fires from other sources potentially poses a greater risk than power line fires under moderate wind conditions.

During the PUC proceedings, we put forward an outline for a cost/benefit analysis to help find the “sweet spot,” the shut-off threshold where overall public risk is minimized. SDG&E will have none of it; its sole concern is power line fires, for which it can be held liable.

The utility makes its motives clear in its shut-off application. SDG&E is trying to change Tariff Rule 14 to remove any liability the company might have for its actions if it shuts off power, and shift the cost of the consequences to you, the ratepayer.

The result of looking only at utility liability to determine when to shut off power means that the trigger point to do that is set too low — at moderate rather than extreme wind speeds. Under this plan, based on recent history, we’d expect SDG&E to shut off power twice a year. The company’s shut-off trigger point is also far below standards mandated by regulation. By law, its lines must be able to operate at wind speeds higher than SDG&E’s proposed shut-off criteria. Therefore, SDG&E’s shut-off plan looks like a cheap way to avoid upgrades and maintenance while saddling customers with risks, costs and inconvenience.