Say what you want about San Diego Gas & Electric, but you can't accuse the utility of lacking a flair for the dramatic. It was barely a month ago that SDG&E drew sharp criticism for publicly declaring the city was dangerously low on power and faced possible rolling blackouts on Labor Day. That was news to the California Independent System Operator, which just as publicly declared that San Diego was, in fact, in no danger of Labor Day blackouts. A spokeswoman for SDG&E later blamed the false alarm on a “miscommunication.”
Now, in the wake of a state report blaming SDG&E power lines for starting three of last year's deadly wildfires, the utility has announced a new policy aimed at avoiding a repeat of the problem: It will cut off power to rural areas of the county during particularly dry and windy conditions.
How dramatic a move is that? No other utility in the state has a standing policy of cutting off power during high-wind conditions.
SDG&E officials stressed that power would be cut only during the most extreme circumstances. A National Weather Service red-flag warning would have to be in effect. Wind speeds would need to be in excess of 35 mph, wind gusts above 55 mph, humidity below 20 percent and moisture levels in living and dead vegetation extremely low. The utility also insisted customers in the more populated areas, such as Downtown, would be untouched by the blackouts. Only the estimated 45,000 SDG&E customers in the sparsely populated “backwaters” would be affected.
Nonetheless, the plan was quickly denounced by many residents, who called it dangerous and even elitist, and by public officials like county Supervisor Bill Horn, who called it “nuts” in an interview with the San Diego Union-Tribune.
Some charged that SDG&E was simply trying to avoid responsibility for maintaining brush clearance around its lines. Last month's report by the California Public Utilities Commission suggested the utility's failure to properly clear brush helped start 2007's wildfires.
Donna Tisdale, a 35-year resident of Boulevard—a tiny community in the southeast corner of the county—and a frequent SDG&E critic, says a loss of power during a fire emergency would mean rural residents wouldn't be able to operate well pumps at a time when water would be most needed.
“It's just crazy,” Tisdale told CityBeat. “A lot of residents here are low-income and senior citizens on fixed incomes. They can't afford backup generators or the fuel stores to operate the well pumps should power be cut off.”
But others, including Supervisor Dianne Jacob, praised the measure as appropriate, and even Tisdale admitted that the threat of power lines sparking brush fires wouldn't be eliminated by mere brush maintenance.
“It's not just the brush clearance,” she says. “At the end of an extreme wind event, hot wires could throw flaming materials beyond the clearance area.”
Officials at SDG&E didn't return calls for comment by press time.