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PG&E Blasted For Not Being More Like SDG&E In Managing Power Shutoffs, But Is The Comparison Fair?

Flames from the Witch Creek fire light up the early Friday morning sky in nor...

Photo by Jon Vidar / Associated Press

Above: Flames from the Witch Creek fire light up the early Friday morning sky in northern San Diego County, Oct. 26, 2007.

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Local critics argue SDG&E should not be put on a pedestal so quickly and the comparison is not equal.

Aired: October 24, 2019 | Transcript

As Pacific Gas & Electric Co. plans power shutdowns beginning Wednesday in parts of 17 Northern California counties due to high winds and fire danger, its management of the crisis has been widely criticized.

A few weeks ago, PG&E cut power to more than 700,000 customers. At the time, politicians and pundits pointed to San Diego Gas & Electric, which shut off electricity to about 500 customers, as a better example of wildfire preparedness.

But local critics argue SDG&E should not be put on a pedestal so quickly and the comparison is not equal.

"Are they better than the utilities in the north? Yeah probably," said Dianne Jacob, a San Diego County supervisor and long-time critic of SDG&E. "But does that mean that they are the gold standard? Absolutely not."

Jacob said the utility made changes too late — only after power lines started catastrophic fires in 2007 that burned hundreds of homes and killed two people. Now, she said, they are only doing just enough to avoid being found at fault in a future fire.

RELATED: Supreme Court Denies SDG&E Appeal To Have Ratepayers Pay $379M For 2007 Wildfires

"They're more interested in covering their liability rear end than they are about looking out for those who have suffered losses and the ratepayers," she said.

In the wake of the 2007 fires, SDG&E began using "public safety power shutoffs" as one mitigation tool. Now the shutoffs have become the new normal across California with increased heat and wildfire danger.

At a hearing Friday with the California Public Utilities Commission, PG&E CEO Bill Johnson said planned power outages could occur for the next 10 years to mitigate wind and fire dangers.

About 180,000 PG&E customers could have their electricity shut off this week, while SDG&E notified about 24,000 customers they could lose power.

RELATED: Santa Ana Winds Return, Raising Wildfire Threat For San Diego County

But in San Diego, the number of customers potentially affected is much smaller than those in Northern California. Since 2013, 52,000 SDG&E customers lost power, a fraction of the more than 700,000 PG&E customers impacted earlier this month. This week, SDG&E has warned 24,000 customers of possible shut offs.

That difference in the size of the shut offs led the California Public Utilities Commission to blast PG&E, asking why it couldn't be more like its sister utility to the south. In a letter, the CPUC demanded substantial changes in PG&E’s power shut off planning, including that the utility enhance efforts to minimize the size of future events.

Photo by Claire Trageser

Brian D'Agostino, SDG&E’s Director of Fire Science and Climate Adaptation, scans the monitors at the utility’s operations center, Oct. 18, 2019.

That is a priority for SDG&E’s meteorologists working in the utility’s operations center.

Ahead of another weekend of increased fire risk, Brian D'Agostino, SDG&E’s Director of Fire Science and Climate Adaptation, was preparing to lead a team of meteorologists who would monitor the hot and dry air with strong Santa Ana winds — conditions ripe for a fire.

D'Agostino stood in front of five giant monitors showing live mountaintop cameras and yellow, blue and red lines representing the utility's power lines.

"A major change from 10 years ago is we can see those days coming," he said. "All of these tools analyze all of the historical data and tell us when we're going to have that type of day that can result in a catastrophic fire."

In the past decade an SDG&E spokesperson said the utility has spent more than $1.5 billion on wildfire preparedness. According to D’Agostino, that includes an overhaul of its grid to minimize large scale power shutoffs. Now if they shut down one line, they can still get power to areas through another route.

The design of PG&E’s transmission and distribution network makes that much more difficult, said Michael Wara, the director of the Climate and Energy Policy Program at Stanford University.

SDG&E is rolling out new technology all the time, including moving power lines underground and creating smaller grids so they can turn off power in neighborhoods or even individual households with the highest fire risk, D'Agostino said.

All of this requires data, which SDG&E collects from 190 weather stations spread across the region. PG&E also utilizes weather stations — according to spokesperson Tracy Lopez, in 2018 the utility installed 200 new weather stations, and 400 more so far in 2019. The plan is to have 1,300 total weather stations by 2022. But because most of these stations have been set up so recently, Wara said the utility doesn’t yet have all the data it needs.

But is it fair to compare SDG&E and PG&E? Yes and no, said Wara.

It's unfair for a few reasons: San Diego's utility serves a quarter of the 16 million PG&E customers over a far smaller area and its terrain is less challenging to manage. SDG&E covers 4,100 square miles in San Diego and southern Orange counties. PG&E, meanwhile covers about 70,000 square miles in northern and central California.

Also, PG&E's territory involves far more trees that need to be managed so their branches don't come off and strike power lines, Wara said. And the fire-prone areas where the northern utility might want to cut power are far more densely populated than San Diego's eastern county.

But in other ways, it is fair, he said. After SDG&E began making major changes in the wake of the 2007 fires, PG&E should have better followed their example, he said.

"Twelve years ago SDG&E said utility-caused wildfire is not acceptable, and we need to do something about it. So they developed a whole program of activities to really reduce the risk," Wara said. "They're not done, but they have a process where they're always trying to improve, where there's no end to their efforts for risk reduction."

He said PG&E could have also acted at that time, but didn't.

PG&E spokesperson Lopez counters that the utility has in fact acted to mitigate fire risk, and "the public safety power shutoff event we are implementing now is just one way we are doing that."

"They didn't say we should be doing the things San Diego is doing, because that could happen to us," Wara said.

Now, PG&E is playing catch up, and will not be able to improve its grid to minimize power shutoffs anytime soon, he said.

"It's a seven- to 10-year problem," Wara said. "In the meantime, PG&E can improve how it communicates with its customers about the shutoffs."

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Photo of Claire Trageser

Claire Trageser
Investigative Reporter

opening quote marksclosing quote marksAs a member of the KPBS investigative team, my job is to hold the powerful in San Diego County accountable. I've done in-depth investigations on political campaigns, police officer misconduct and neighborhood quality of life issues.

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