Skip to main content

LATEST UPDATES: Tracking COVID-19 | Vaccines | Racial Justice

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

Cover image for podcast episode

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

Speaker 1: 00:00 Precautionary power shutdowns are taking place in the East County today as howling Santa Ana winds rake through the back country and to SDG, and E's says more than 41,000 residents could have their power shutoff sometime during this red flag event. Still, it's nowhere near the hundreds of thousands left without power when Pacific gas and electric shut down power in Northern California. Since then, politicians and pundits have praised San Diego gas and electric as an example of better wildfire preparedness as part of our California dream collaboration. KPBS is Claire Traeger. Sir looks into what's being been done here in San Diego and how it works.

Speaker 2: 00:40 It's bright and sunny out, but dark as night inside live Oak market and liquor, a small store in the far Eastern portion of San Diego County owner, Matthew NISO, skins the Isles,

Speaker 3: 00:52 this all [inaudible] here because it's hot now.

Speaker 2: 00:57 His power was turned off by SDG ne as a precaution against wildfires. He says the outage will cost him $12,000 in lost goods

Speaker 3: 01:06 and plus the business today and yesterday. Here to save is nothing good, like a dangerous, okay. Why can't the power [inaudible]?

Speaker 2: 01:15 NISO is clearly frustrated, but he was only one of about 500 customers who lost power a few weeks ago in Northern California. PG knee cut power to more than 700,000 customers. These quote public safety power shutoffs have become the new normal across California with increased heat and wildfire danger. But in San Diego, the number of customers affected is much smaller. In six years, a combined total of only 52,000 customers have lost power in SDG and E's operation center. Limiting the size of shutoffs is a priority.

Speaker 3: 01:53 So yes, our our meteorology team right now of course is kind of head down getting ready for the upcoming event.

Speaker 2: 02:00 Brian D'Agostino is SDG and E's director of fire science and climate adaptation. The event he's talking about is a hot and dry weekend with strong Santa Ana. Winds. Conditions ripe for a fire. He stands in front of five giant monitors showing live mountain top cameras and yellow, blue and red squiggles representing the utilities power lines.

Speaker 3: 02:22 A major change from 10 years ago is that we can see those days coming.

Speaker 2: 02:28 San Diego's utility serves a quarter as many customers over a far smaller area than PG nee and its terrain is less challenging to manage. But in the past decade, SDG knee has spent more than one point $5 billion on wildfire preparedness, including an overhaul of its grid to minimize large scale power shutoffs. All of this requires a lot of data, which SDG knee collects from 190 weather stations spread across the region. While PGNE also uses weather stations, they've only been set up recently, which means the utility doesn't yet have all the data. It needs

Speaker 3: 03:08 these tools, analyze all of the historical data and tell us, when do we have that type of day that can result in a catastrophic fire?

Speaker 4: 03:19 Are they better than in the North? The utilities in the North? Yeah, probably. But does that mean that they are the gold standard? Absolutely not.

Speaker 2: 03:29 Diane Jacob is a San Diego County supervisor and a longtime critic of SDG Annie. She says, the utility made those changes too late. Only after power lines started devastating fires in 2007 that burned hundreds of homes and killed two people.

Speaker 4: 03:46 They're more interested in covering their liability rear end. And they are about looking out for the best interest of those who have suffered losses and the rate payers,

Speaker 2: 03:58 Jacob says SDG uni is still behind on making the changes critical to preventing future fires.

Speaker 4: 04:05 Finish the job.

Speaker 2: 04:06 Brian D'Agostino with SDG knee counters that the utility is aggressively making improvements. He was one of the team of meteorologists first hired after the 2007 fires to collect data and avoid massive shutoffs. That's a process that PGNE is just beginning now.

Speaker 1: 04:26 Joining me is KPBS investigative reporter Claire Traeger, sir and Claire, welcome and key Marine. From your conversation with the business owner in East County, it doesn't always seem to make a lot of sense to residents. Why power is being shut off in their area. What's the criteria SDG and E uses,

Speaker 2: 04:45 right? So SDG [inaudible] says that they collect as much data as they can from their weather stations and you know, use satellites and try to pinpoint the areas that have the highest risk. And then they say they'll send out crews and even arborous, um, to try and cut tree branches and clear spaces around utility poles in the area so that, you know, branches don't start fall off and start fires, but then they also do need to use power. Shutoffs sometimes. And the one thing that STD, uni stressed is that that may mean cutting power further down the line. Um, so if they have to cut one line, people at the end of the line might also lose power even if they're not in an area that has that high risk. And so that leads to complaints like the one that this business owner was making where he's saying, we're not even in a fire prone area. You know, what's the deal? Why do we need to lose power? But he may have been connected to align that had to be cut in another area because of that risk.

Speaker 1: 05:45 Say now you contrast the areas and the terrain covered by SDG and E versus PGNE. But is that the whole difference? C you say PG and E is only starting the process now. What are they starting?

Speaker 2: 05:58 Well S so from the experts that I spoke with, um, they say that PG knee is starting to collect data the way SDG and E does. They now have 360 weather stations, I believe, but they only rolled them out somewhat recently. And that's far fewer weather stations per acre than SDG ni has. So at PGNE has more, but they cover a far wider area than STG does. They also haven't done the work on their grid to minimize impact when there are power shutoffs. So that's how they end up having to cut power to far bigger areas instead of the more surgical cuts the SDG can make. But one thing that I didn't get into in the radio story is that there are differences between SDG and E and PGNE. Any other differences? And one expert I spoke with said, one big difference is trees. Um, SDG has to manage thousands of trees, but he said PG and E has a different landscape. It's more like tens of millions of trees. Um, and PG and E's areas with high fire risk are more densely populated than San Diego's East County. So when they cut power impacts a lot more people. Even so is the utility

Speaker 1: 07:06 SDG and E being looked at as a model for utilities and high risk fire zones?

Speaker 2: 07:12 Yes, it seems that way because they started this data collection Oh Oh a longer time ago. And they have these meteorologists, the CPEC wouldn't speak to me for this story, but one of its directors told the LA times the STG has three pillars of success that are currently sources of failure for PGNE and those are forecasting fire danger, tailoring narrow outages and then communicating the emergencies with the public. Okay. Then

Speaker 1: 07:40 a supervisor Diane Jacobs says as Gigi and he hasn't done enough, what else does she want them to do?

Speaker 2: 07:47 So she says they're behind on a lot of specific efforts to minimize fire risks. For example, converting wood poles to steel poles, um, which means obviously that they wouldn't burn. Um, she says they need to do shortening the distances between their poles because when they're further apart it can lead the lines to arc and that might start fire and then clearing brush around their lines. And she says that they won't be done with all this until 2027 which is 20 years after the 2007 fires. And she says that that's way too long. Well, there's no doubt

Speaker 1: 08:21 about it. STG and he created a lot of bad blood in this community by fighting so long and so hard to have customers pick up the residual costs of the 2007 fires. Right. And by never accepting the judgment that their utility pole maintenance was partly to blame for that fire. So did you get a sense and talking with SDG and E use representative that the utility is trying to turn that public relations problem around,

Speaker 2: 08:47 right. I mean it seems like it would come as a surprise to a lot of people in San Diego. The SDG is getting this praise across the state, especially with this really recent news that the Supreme court has rejected their, their case to try and pass off the $380 million cost to rate payers. I think STG, and you would say that this is not a PR campaign, but legitimate efforts to combat fire by hiring this team of meteorologists and then they're rolling out new technology like artificial intelligence that kind of helps them predict, um, where a fire might start, where they need to do the most work and this fire innovation lab that's supposed to open next year, but whether it's deliberate PR moves or not, it seems to be working out for them as they're getting all of this attention across the state. I had been speaking with KPBS investigative reporter Claire Trek. Assert Claire. Thank you. Thank you. KPBS reporter Matt Hoffman contributed to this report.

Speaker 5: 09:44 [inaudible].

KPBS Midday Edition Segments podcast branding

KPBS Midday Edition Segments

Maureen Cavanaugh and Jade Hindmon host KPBS Midday Edition, a daily radio news magazine keeping San Diego in the know on everything from politics to the arts.