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SDG&E’s Controversial Power Shut-Off Plan

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Aired 7/31/09

Is shutting off power to San Diego's back country a good idea when the fire danger is high? SDG&E and the San Diego City Council think so, but many back country residents are opposed to the plan.

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Above: San Diego Week host Gloria Penner speaks with local editors about the San Diego City Council's support for SDG&E's plan to cut power to rural residents during fire weather.

This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

GLORIA PENNER (Host): I’m Gloria Penner and I’m joined by the editors at the roundtable These Days in San Diego. Today, we’ll talk about the pros and cons of SDG&E’s Power Shut-Off Plan to rural areas during fire danger conditions, of charging for trash collection in the City of San Diego, and some mixed reports over whether there’s a turnaround in the housing market. The editors with me today are Miriam Raftery. She’s editor of East County magazine. And welcome back, Miriam. I’m glad you decided to join us again.

MIRIAM RAFTERY (Editor, East County Magazine): Gloria, thank you very much for inviting me.

PENNER: You’re…

RAFTERY: It’s a pleasure.

PENNER: You’re welcome. Andrew Donohue, editor of voiceofsandiego.org. Always good to see you, Andrew.

ANDREW DONOHUE (Editor, voiceofsandiego.org): Always great to see you, Gloria.

PENNER: And Ricky Young, government editor for the San Diego Union-Tribune. And welcome back to you as well, Ricky.

RICKY YOUNG (Government Editor, San Diego Union-Tribune): Good morning, Gloria. It’s nice to be here.

PENNER: Our phone number, if you’d like to join our conversation, and I see that people are already joining our conversation before we’ve even started, is 1-888-895-5727, 895-KPBS. Well, the threat of devastating wildfires in San Diego’s rural areas during hot, windy conditions strengthens as the summer temperature rises. To lessen the danger from downed power poles and electric wires, SDG&E has developed an Emergency Power Shut-Off Plan that has sparked its own firestorm of controversy. So, Miriam, why is there opposition to turning off power to the back country during fire prone periods?

RAFTERY: Well, Gloria, there are actually many reasons for that. SDG&E, of course, argues this will make people safer but the problem is if you shut off the power and then a fire starts from something else other than a power line, say, a cigarette or a spark from some – from a car fire, you have people out there who are reliant on electricity for wells to pump water. How do you fight the fires? Padre Water says they’ll run out of water in a matter of hours if the power is shut off.

PENNER: How does the company respond to that kind of a question?

RAFTERY: They tell people to go out and buy generators basically, and that you have to be self-sufficient for up to three days if you live in the back country now. But what about the people that are on respirators or life support equipment? The opposition also comes from places like schools and hospitals that are not getting advance warning from SDG&E. What do you do if all of a sudden you’ve got a whole bunch of kids and the power goes out, you know? How do you evacuate if your garage door won’t open or the traffic signals aren’t working? It already took five hours to evacuate Ramona.

PENNER: When we’re talking about the back country, what are we referring to? Can you be sort of specific about the areas that are involved?

RAFTERY: There is a map, I understand, at the SDG&E site. But we’re primarily talking about the rural, you know, the mountain communities, the desert communities. I believe places like Alpine would be included in that. It’s not the urban core but, of course, the question is if a fire starts in the back country and you can’t put it out because there’s not water or people can’t wake up to be alerted by the emergency alerts that go out, you know, could it get out of hand? Is it – Does it make us safer? Or does it make things more dangerous, is the question.

PENNER: Okay, well, you know, the – It’s interesting. This week, Andrew, the San Diego City Council voted to back SDG&E’s plan. It doesn’t affect any utility customers within the city limits. Why is the city weighing in on this issue?

DONOHUE: Well, I think, like you said, it doesn’t actually affect anybody in the city limits, the actual shut-off plan, which is probably why they’re actually supporting it. What it would do, and I think what the reason the fire chief was supporting it, is it would make it probably a lot less likely that a fire would actually come in – start off in the east, you know, out in the east county and come into city limits. You know, we’ve seen, with the last two big fires, they sort of – they spread out in the back country and came into the City of San Diego with great force into some of its, you know, bigger neighborhoods.

PENNER: Okay, before I go to Ricky Young, who’s government editor of the San Diego Union-Tribune, let me just ask our listeners their sense about whether it’s appropriate to cut off power to the back country, the rural areas of San Diego, during times of fire – of increased fire danger. What is your feeling about that? Our number is 1-888-895-5727, 895-KPBS. So, Ricky, Andrew is basically saying there’s some self interest involved here in the city’s vote. Is it appropriate that the City of San Diego act in self interest, arguing that back country fires have spread to the city and this power cutoff could stop them before they get into the city?

YOUNG: Well, Gloria, there’s some self interest that could even be more self interested than what Andrew’s mentioning. We reported just before the vote that Sempra and SDG&E had given a, you know, a fair amount of money to the members of the San Diego City Council. A couple of them, as we had reported earlier, had sent letters in support of the plan that were actually written by SDG&E and then a couple that were out front on this recent vote, the council president, Ben Hueso, and Marti Emerald, they had had fundraisers hosted for them by the utility in recent months. And, interestingly, the vote ended up being 6-2 and the two who voted against it were the two who got the least amount of money from Sempra and SDG&E. So that’s a cynical way of looking at it. I’m sure they were all voting with their constituents’ best interests at heart and there is the case to be made that the fires could come in from the back country and affect their constituents but I’d be interested to hear what Miriam, you know, is hearing from folks out there about the actions taken by the council.

PENNER: Okay, but let me just pursue what you had to say a little bit.

YOUNG: Okay.

PENNER: So you’re basically saying that Marti Emerald and Ben Hueso, who received the most from the – from SDG&E or – and it’s parent company, Sempra – I think they received the most. Of the – of those city council members who ran for election in 2008 and won, that’s really what you’re saying.

YOUNG: It’s not – it’s not necessarily that they got the most – What we found significant was the timing of the fundraisers. When you hold a post-election fundraiser, a lot of that money directly benefits the candidate in a way because they’re paying off their campaign debts at that time. So – And then Ben Hueso is running for State Assembly so there’s key – both of them were at a key time and had Sempra host a fundraiser for them.

PENNER: I heard Ben Hueso on These Days on KPBS this week and – being interviewed by Maureen Cavanaugh, and he vehemently denied that it had anything at all to do with his position on this and actually I think he said that he even gave back some money.

YOUNG: He gave back money to Sempra but he – to the money that they directly gave to him, he did not give back the money that he collected at a fundraiser that they hosted at their headquarters.

PENNER: Okay.

DONOHUE: I think it’s important to note, I mean, we are talking about a couple thousand dollars, you know…

PENNER: Umm-hmm.

DONOHUE: …here and there and this is a – there is a legitimate argument in favor of this plan being made by the actual fire chief of the City of San Diego as well. So that, you know, there’s obviously always money at play in politics here, too, but, I mean, you have the fire chief of the City of San Diego that’s actually out in favor of this.

PENNER: Well, I guess that raises the question, Miriam, how are the other fire chiefs responding? I mean, Tracy Jarman in the City of San Diego says it’s a good idea. But…

RAFTERY: Most of them in the back country that I’ve spoken with are opposed to the plan.

PENNER: And why?

RAFTERY: Because of the water issue.

PENNER: And what about the – what – a question that Ricky Young asked earlier, you know, what is the reaction of people generally?

RAFTERY: They’re pretty outraged at the city council. And, of course, most of my readers can’t vote for them. They’re out in the back country areas. But, interestingly, the Board of Supervisors, which took a lot more money from SDG&E than the city council members did, they actually voted unanimously, with the exception of Ron Roberts who wasn’t there when the vote was taken, against the shutoff plan, exactly the opposite. And I would say the overwhelming sentiment in the back country is they believe that SDG&E is really more interested in protecting itself from liability for future fires, that it’s cheaper for them to just pull the plug than it is to go out and maintain these lines, underground these lines, so that they won’t – they won’t cause future fires.

PENNER: Okay, well, let’s relieve some of the pressure on our phone lines here because they are all completely filled up so we’ll start with Jim in San Diego. Hey, Jim, you’re on with the editors. Welcome.

JIM (Caller, San Diego): Thank you, Gloria.

PENNER: Sure, go ahead.

JIM: I’ve got a problem with not shutting that power off. My house burned down in October and SDG&E admitted to 550-something fires their equipment started in 6 years because they won’t shut the doggone power off. And I’m in the middle of the city, in Rancho Bernardo. That fire started in the back country like they all do. It is criminal to vote against not shutting that power off.

PENNER: You know, it’s interesting…

JIM: Terry Leitner…

PENNER: Go ahead. I’m sorry.

JIM: Pardon me?

PENNER: Please, go ahead.

JIM: The county commissioners voted their constituents and the city council voted their constituents. You know, we lost six – what, 1600 homes in the middle of Rancho Bernardo in the Witch Creek alone. It’s crazy not to prevent it. You can’t fight it.

PENNER: Okay.

JIM: And you’re risking firefighters. The people don’t want to pay for it. They voted against the tax. To not try to prevent that is insane.

PENNER: My understanding – And thank you, Jim, for your comments. My understanding, Andrew, is that El Cajon, Escondido and La Mesa have also backed the plan. So the opposition seems to be centered where

DONOHUE: It – Well, it sounds like from Miriam that it’s, you know, out in the back country, the sort of people that would be isolated and left without, you know, power, so the people that rely on well water, people that are, you know, just way out in the more rural areas. But I think we – an important part of this discussion, too, is investigators are blaming SDG&E for three of the fires. At least three of the fires from 2007, SDG&E just settled for $686 million for those claims so it is pretty clear that they’re – you know, they need to try to or they’re very aggressively trying to maintain their liabilities as well.

PENNER: Well, as Jim said, I mean, Jim made the point, if you live in an area like Rancho Bernardo and the fire comes and, for one reason or another, SDG&E is responsible, you sure as heck are going to be for shutting off the power and you can see that. But is this a geographical matter, Miriam? Are we finding that it’s lit geographically? If you’re in the back country, you’re reliant on that power for water and…

RAFTERY: In large…

PENNER: Yeah.

RAFTERY: Yeah, in large part. People out there tell me they feel like they’re being treated like a third world country all of a sudden. And it’s an interesting and little known fact that SDG&E is trying to change the rules with the PUC so that it would not have any responsibility for any injuries, deaths or property damage that would occur if it shut the power off but, of course, it would be responsible if its lines start a fire. So in other words, if they shut it off and, let’s say, a fire starts from something else and people die, they won’t be responsible. And my question is, why is it that an entire nation, there are wildfires in many other states and counties, why is it only here in San Diego where we have a utility that’s been, you know, accused of starting many of these fires that we see this proposal to solve the problem by shutting off the power to people who’ve lived out there their whole lives, many of them. These aren’t rich folks, you know.

PENNER: Right. I understand. But I think that the – one of the interesting things that I read was that SDG&E’s fire preparedness manager said the plan would be implemented only once or twice a year with power outages for about 10,000 customers at a time. Now, we’ve certainly had power outages affecting several thousand customers at a time and somehow we survived. Ricky, does that sound, you know, too severe to consider?

YOUNG: Well, you know, the whole thing presents an interesting question and the – I don’t know if it’s too severe to consider but some things that I think are interesting about it are a couple of matters, which is the – a couple of people have mentioned garage door openers, which I think would be a real fear if you were out there. How would you get away? And then the other question is generators. And would those start fires as well?

PENNER: Umm-hmm.

YOUNG: Because some of those are pretty rickety.

PENNER: Okay, so we’ll get back to…

RAFTERY: Right, and expensive, too.

YOUNG: Yeah.

PENNER: We’ll get back to Ricky’s comments and to the rest of our callers in just a moment. We’re going to take our break now. This is the Editors Roundtable. We’re talking about stopping power in the back country, and we’d love to have you join us. I’m Gloria Penner at KPBS.

# # #

PENNER: This is the Editors Roundtable. I’m Gloria Penner and I’m at the table today with Ricky Young from San Diego Union-Tribune, Andrew Donohue from voiceofsandiego.org, and Miriam Raftery from East County magazine. We’re talking about the utility’s plan, SDG&E’s plan, to shut off power during fire prone times to the back country and San Diego City Council just weighed in this week and said they approve that plan. And now I believe that SDG&E is waiting for an approval or a disapproval, approval probably, from the Public Utilities Commission. We’ll talk about that, too, but let’s hear from our listeners now. They’ve called in and waiting. Jared in La Mesa. Jared, I’m going to ask everybody now to be brief so we can get to as many of you as possible, get your impressions.

JARED (Caller, La Mesa): Sure, yeah, I can do that. Good topic. I – One thing I’ve been wondering is just when we kind of get situated in these wildfires, we learn how to get our information, now I’m wondering, okay, if the power goes down, most of my information is on the internet, the wildfire alerts, things like that. How are we going to get information?

RAFTERY: Yeah.

PENNER: Okay, let’s start with Andrew. Andrew, I mean, you’re with an online newspaper. How are people going to get information?

DONOHUE: Well, I think that’s a great point. You know, in emergencies, you’re taught to put the batteries in the radio and, you know, listen away. But the internet’s a much more efficient way of getting that information and a much more immediate – you don’t have to sit around and wait. You can go directly to where you need to get that information. I thought that was actually going to be a bigger deal than the water issue.

RAFTERY: Yeah.

PENNER: Okay, interesting. The Red Cross gives away these wind-up radios where you actually can create power by cranking the radio and you can recharge your cell phone that way so, you know, there are ways of surviving. And, Miriam, you want to add to that.

RAFTERY: Absolutely. Gloria, I know from personal experience that the radios did not have the emergency information about this during the Harris wildfire at least. And, typically, when these fires start in the back country, the radio doesn’t go live with the information until it burns into the City of San Diego. I had people e-mailing me in the middle of the night during the Harris fire when I worked for another publication, because their phone lines had burned down and they had no way – the radios didn’t have it, the TV didn’t have it. Their only source of information was online.

PENNER: Okay.

RAFTERY: That’s actually why we started a wildfire alert but you can’t count on that when you’re out there.

DONOHUE: And that’s the information people are going to be using to actually know whether or not they’re going to be evacuating, too.

PENNER: Right, and…

RAFTERY: Umm-hmm.

PENNER: …we even did a fire map…

RAFTERY: Umm-hmm.

PENNER: …on KPBS.org to tell people where the fires were as they were breaking out.

RAFTERY: Good.

PENNER: So, let us now – Thank you very much, Jared, for your call. Assemblywoman Lori Saldana’s calling in. Lori, welcome to Editors Roundtable and please make it brief.

LORI SALDANA (California State Assembly Member): Yes, good morning. I met with SDG&E in Sacramento. I recommended that they immediately begin putting up alternative energy solutions in the back country, at least at the emergency shelter locations, so photovoltaic and wind power. That was met with blank stares. But we can’t have people rely on generators exclusively and if they’re going to shut off the power, they need to be providing onsite power generation. And so I have yet to hear a response to the recommendation that I made on this plan.

PENNER: Okay. Thank you very much, Lori. Dusty in La Jolla is with us now. Hi, Dusty, you’re on with the editors.

DUSTY (Caller, La Jolla): Hello. Thank you for taking my call.

PENNER: Yes.

DUSTY: My concern is public utilities are – their purpose is to provide power to the public when they need it, and SDG&E has made millions and millions of dollars over the years by not engineering their systems right so to avoid these fires – We’re not the only place with high winds and fire conditions. The other thing is, thousands of generators means thousands of gallons of gasoline on – out there. That means large potential for fires. At least some of these generators are going to catch fire and explode, starting fires. There’s the problem of back flowing electricity into the system and possibly electrocuting SDG&E’s employees, other people. It’s ridiculous…

PENNER: Okay, thank you very…

DUSTY: …that these…

PENNER: Thank you, Dusty. Appreciate that. All right, now let’s be fair about this. I mean, this is a plan that’s on the table. And, Andrew, let me turn to you on this. Council president Ben Hueso said this is a start and the plan would be refined as more people come to the table to discuss it. Have we heard any other plans?

DONOHUE: Well, I haven’t. You know, but I think it brings up a larger point which is this is sort of one thing that’s being discussed in isolation. And here we are, you know, a year removed from a major ballot initiative that failed that was going to raise taxes to actually fund more firefighting. We still don’t – we’re still the only major county in the whole, entire state that doesn’t have a unified fire protection district. I think like we’re going to get to the trash tax discussion ahead, later in the show, this is another example where if this was part of a broad plan that was set up to actually improve our fire situation, I think a lot more people could get behind it and understand where it fits in with everything else that we’re trying to do. But when you see it just by itself in isolation, it’s hard to understand exactly the larger impact that it’s going to have…

PENNER: But…

DONOHUE: …on anything.

PENNER: But to fund that consolidated fire department, to bring the agencies together, there would’ve been a parcel tax that would have had to have been levied and the people voted against it.

DONOHUE: But no – absolutely nobody campaigned in favor of it.

RAFTERY: That’s right.

DONOHUE: There were a couple of politicians that put it up on the ballot and feigned – you know, Sanders and Roberts very – feigned very slim enthusiasm for it and acted like they were out there supporting it and then threw their hands up and said, well, I guess the people didn’t support it. When in actuality, it was pretty clear that they didn’t want to be on the record as the people that raised this tax. And so you didn’t have any leadership out there actually telling people why they should support it. It almost passed. I mean, it very – it was very close to passing and nobody – no public official got behind it in any sort of concerted manner.

PENNER: Ricky Young.

YOUNG: It had majority support. It did not have the two-thirds required to pass. We did an analysis of the votes and, interestingly, it got the least support in the back country. So I guess like the SDG&E plan, the vote to fund regional fire protection through a parcel tax had actually more support in San Diego than it did in the back country.

PENNER: Opposed to this plan are Cox Communications and AT&T, you know, large companies. Why are they opposed?

RAFTERY: Because people in the shut-off areas will not be able to get any information via cable, via telephone if it’s a plug-in telephone, and so it clearly impacts emergency information as well as all other forms of communication.

PENNER: Have they submitted an alternative plan?

RAFTERY: Not that I’ve seen.

PENNER: Okay. So what we get is a, you know, a lot of opposition from certain interest groups but we don’t see an optional plan. Ricky?

RAFTERY: I…

YOUNG: I – I wanted to note one thing. I’m sorry to change the subject just for a second. The – we keep saying it’s just a plan but we reported this week that they plan to go ahead with it even if the PUC is not signed onto it. They’re unhappy with the pace of PUC approval and they say they will do it anyway, while they wait for a PUC decision, in September when fire season starts.

DONOHUE: And there is a – there is another option. The other option, and Diane Jacob has been saying this over and over again, which is SDG&E just needs to maintain its lines, that the cause of the problems before was poorly maintained lines and that…

RAFTERY: That’s right.

DONOHUE: …and if they actually invested in putting well-performing lines out there everything would be fine.

PENNER: Okay, well, with that, we are going to wrap up this part of the discussion because we have lots more to talk about and very, very fascinating subjects ahead.

Comments

Avatar for user 'R24comm'

R24comm | July 31, 2009 at 11:08 a.m. ― 5 years, 4 months ago

Amid all the outcry about SDG&E turning off the power just when it might be essential, few voices (except one supervisor/councilmember?) are bringing up the issue of fixing those supposedly dangerous lines. The utility has no trouble spending 1/2 billion dollars to burned-out home owners. That's a lot of money that might have been invested in fixing those dangerous lines.

A moment of thinking about those lines brings up the point that even if there are badly maintained lines somewhere in the county, they aren't everywhere. Further, the spots where lines are most at risk of damage and starting a fire certainly are also in specific areas -- certain windy valleys, certain areas where lines are old. It seems quite likely that for a relatively few dollars, at least when measured against 1/2 billion payout, the utility could identify the lines that are most problematic and install separators and other accessories that would greatly lessen them sparking into a fire.

Strangely we hear nothing of such efforts. It seems it's cheaper -- and less demanding of utility administrators' time or interest, their rhetoric notwithstanding -- simply for them to pay some insurance premiums to protect their business from lawsuits -- the cost of which they can pass on to customers -- and then in addition impose on the customers the "shut it all down" solution, whereupon, with the next wind and fire, they can say: we did our part -- too bad you won't be able to use pumps to fight a fire; too bad your communication systems will be dead without power. Not our problem.

This may be just another sign that certain public services (another is health care?) are not necessarily administered in a way that best serves the public's interests. As society has defined its relationship to the utilities now, companies like SDG&E are essentially immune to public pressure. Efforts using the media to shame them into dealing with this problem differently hardly ruffles their feathers. When the fires start burning again, remember: we created this situation. And it seems the California Public Utilities Commission no more powerful than the public. Alas.

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Avatar for user 'La_Mesan'

La_Mesan | August 1, 2009 at 9:33 a.m. ― 5 years, 4 months ago

Just want to correct a statement Penner made. La Mesa has NOT backed the plan, only the Mayor personally. It makes me wonder if she is generalizing for the other back country cities she also mentions.

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