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SDG&E Power Shut-Off Plan Blocked

— The California Public Utilities Commission today temporarily blocked San Diego Gas & Electric's plan to shut off power to parts of the county during periods of high winds to prevent wildfire.

The CPUC voted 3-2 to issue a temporary restraining order preventing SDG&E from implementing the shut-off plan until the regulatory body has a chance to fully review the proposal. The CPUC has scheduled a hearing on SDG&E's plan Sept. 10.

Commissioners John Bohn and Rachelle Chong cast the dissenting votes.

During the CPUC hearing in San Francisco, Bohn said it should be up to SDG&E to decide when power should be shut off to protect the public.

"I don't want to take from SDG&E the responsibility and the liability for making the most important safety-oriented decisions and offloading that kind of decision on us," Bohn said. "It is appropriate that they make the decision on when a safety hazard exists, such that the danger to the population is sufficient."

SDG&E didn't immediately return a call seeking comment.

The utility wants to shut off power to rural areas of the county, starting Sept. 1, when extreme weather conditions, including high winds and low humidity, create an accelerated risk of wildfire. The utility proposed the shut-off plan after state investigators, including the CPUC, concluded it was SDG&E's power lines that sparked the wildfires that devastated San Diego County in 2007.

So far, SDG&E has agreed to pay about $740 million to settle lawsuits stemming from the wildfires. SDG&E has been sued by residents who lost their homes and municipalities seeking to recover hundreds of millions of dollars in damages.

Supporters of SDG&E's plan say it is necessary to prevent catastrophic wildfires in the future.

Critics, however, argue it would leave vast parts of the county without vital services during times of emergency, including water pumping, telephones, radios and the use of medical devices.

Two competing recommendations are before the CPUC on Sept. 10.

Administrative law judge Timothy Kenney recommended earlier this month that the CPUC reject SDG&E's plan, stating that the utility "has not met its burden to demonstrate that the benefits of shutting off power outweigh the significant costs, burdens and risks that would be imposed on customers and communities in the areas where the power is shut off."

Commissioner Timothy Simon recommended SDG&E be allowed to implement the shut-off plan as a test until the end of the year, but that tough restrictions be imposed.

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