Wednesday, April 8, 2009
Residents of San Diego’s back country turned out in force last night for a public hearing on San Diego Gas and Electric’s proposed emergency electricity shut-off plan . The utility wants the authority to turn off power to back country customers during days when weather conditions increase the risk of wildfires. KPBS Metro Reporter Katie Orr was at the hearing.
People packed a large meeting room at the Alpine Community Center. They wanted to get their opinions on the record about the proposal under consideration by the the California Public Utilities Commission. The public hearing began with a statement from SDG&E Vice President David Geier. He defended the power company’s proposal which could potentially cut power to 60,000 customers. Geier says electricity would only be turned off if five conditions relating to moisture levels in plants, wind speeds and weather were met. SDG&E estimates that would occur about twice a year.
“But we really feel that this emergency shut off plan is our final defense and it really does provide a level of protection that we haven’t had in the past. Particularly in the very venerable areas, and again, this is only in the most extreme conditions,” he says.
Geier says the shut-off plan would be just a part of SDG&E’s fire protection program. But residents in affected areas worry that shutting off the power will only make the situation worse. Tara Jordan lives in Alpine and says if there’s no power it could be hard to get water to fight fires.
“A majority of the people out here in Alpine are on wells. So not only would they lose power like everyone in the city would as far as their lights and information, television that kind of thing. We will lose water. Our wells are on pumps and they run through electricity. We will be out here with no way to defend ourselves,” she says.
SDG&E is stressing the importance of being prepared in case power is shut off. But that message was interpreted another way by Randy Ward, the San Diego County Superintendent of Schools. He says the utility isn’t being prepared, rather it’s asking customers to take responsibility.
“The other thing I’m very concerned about is this, what I call the yo-yo attitude. And the yo-yo attitude is you’re on your own,” he says.
Ward says it’s not practical for cash strapped schools to be able to keep operating without power.
“And they talk about you’re on your own, you need generators. Well, public schools can’t even get money for text books, forget about generators,” he says.
The crowd at the meeting was anything but quite. Comment’s like Ward’s drew cheers and applause. But those who spoke up for SDG&E’s plan were met with sarcastic barbs and occasional boos. Still, San Miguel Fire District Chief Augi Ghio offered tempered support for shutting off power.
“Maybe there’s another tool in the tool box in the SDG&E plan that will eliminate some of these fire starts and reduce that threat potential to some degree. I do agree however, that should this be implemented, we’ve got to make sure that we do have the adequate water supplies,” he says,
Ghio says SDG&E assured him there would be enough water to fight fires. And fighting fires is something Scott Alvey has to live with. He’s a resident of the back country and has had to evacuate his home during large fires. He says the shut off plan is reasonable and should be considered.
“It’s a common sense approach and if it stops fires from getting started, then I think it’s a solution that in the best interest of all of us,” he says.
Even so, critics think they’re being treated like second class rate payers. Some questioned whether the plan is a way for the power company to limit its liability in large fires. SDG&E the proposal is about keeping people safe. The Public Utilities Commission will hold another hearing tonight in Valley Center. They hope to have a decision by summer.
Katie Orr, KPBS News