• The PUC Called It Right from Malibu’s Point of View •
The state Public Utilities Commission last week soundly rejected San Diego Gas & Electric Company’s plan to cut electricity to large segments of San Diego residential areas when the weather bodes ill in terms of serious wildfire potential.
The PUC said the utility didn’t prove the benefits of its plan to cut power to thousands of homes and businesses in strong winds to prevent downed lines from igniting a wildfire. Electrical systems would stop immediately or soon thereafter, including medical devices, electric gates, water pumps, telephone systems, radios and televisions, garage door openers, traffic lights, and that’s just the beginning of the list.
Commissioners voted 4-1 to reject the SDG&E plan without future consideration. The utility didn’t take the adverse decision lightly. As an aside, SDG&E is a subsidiary of Sempra Energy, which had an even worse week in Sacramento, but don’t worry, we’re not going to go there unless we find some kind of Malibu connection down the road.
Had the PUC decided in favor of the SDG&E plan, it would have set a precedent for similar action in other communities where power poles have started wildfires, such as Malibu. Imagine our community if someone threw a switch cutting all local power just because Santa Ana winds were howling—no communication, no lights, possibly no water or other basic necessities. If wildfire did strike, we wouldn’t even be able to leave the lights on in our evacuated homes, which is what firefighters prefer so they can find structures in the smoke.
SDG&E asked for authority to cut off power during wind speeds as low as 30 mph, but that would have been untenable in Malibu. Last year, count the number of days when Santa Anas roared at speeds greater than 30 mph; the total was double digits.
In 2008, SDG&E posted a profit of $70 million, up 14.8 percent from a year earlier, on revenue of $631 million. Utilities are supposed to invest in infrastructure. Perhaps the PUC’s next move should be to explore ways to encourage utilities to replace more wood poles with steel ones and face up to the cost of moving lines underground where feasible.
Instead, it is likely that SDG&E, as well as other utilities, will seek rate increases, using as impetus that insurance premiums increased after the fires and all costs have to be passed on to the ratepayers. These increases will probably be approved.
Malibuites should be grateful that San Diegans in the communities that would have lost electricity fiercely opposed SDG&E’s proposal because it means that Malibuites may not have to wage a similar battle in the foreseeable future.