A firetruck running along California Highway 96

Wildfire season causes power outages. SDG&E has a plan for San Diego customers

For many utility customers in San Diego’s outback, wildfire season brings public safety shutdowns—and major hassles.

In shutdowns, investor-owned utilities like San Diego Gas and Electric de-energize circuits in a designated area when conditions are dry and windy in order to reduce the risk of a power line falling and starting a wildfire. The shutdowns have disproportionately hit customers in rural areas, where cases of severe congestion are common.

As the fire season heats up this week, the California Public Utilities Commission has heard from SDG&E and other statewide energy providers about the steps they are taking to reduce the impacts of the safety shutdown on customers. Most are infrastructure improvements designed to reduce fire risks, such as driving power lines underground, covering conductors and checking and trimming trees.

The two-day meeting came as the McKinney fire in the Klamath National Forest killed four and burned more than 50,000 acres.

“It is critical that we prevent wildfires, but it is also critical that we recognize the impact on customers’ loss of power and expect to see (intentional blackouts) as surgically as possible,” Commissioner John Reynolds said.

In 2013, SDG&E was the first of the three largest investor-owned facilities to use secure shutdowns as a precaution. In recent years, Southern California Edison and Pacific Gas & Electric have embraced this practice and have ramped up wildfires—particularly in Northern California—in frequency and intensity.

A firetruck drives along California Highway 96 as the McKinney fire burns in Klamath National Forest.

(Noah Berger/The Associated Press)

Rural and inland communities in what is called a high fire risk area are particularly affected when the power is cut off proactively because many homes rely on water from electrically powered wells for their homes, horses, and livestock.

“I assure you that when SDG&E starts shutting down the power for public safety, it is a measure of last resort,” said Kevin Geraghty, chief operating officer of SDG&E, during Monday’s meeting, which took place virtually with the CPUC.

Last year, SDG&E lines were deactivated only once–during Thanksgiving week, when high winds battered parts of Eastern Province. At the height of the event, nearly 6,000 customers lost power.

But in other years, the frequency was higher. In 2020, four closings combined to leave 100,725 customers in the dark.

“We are learning a lot and developing modeling to incorporate everything (we learned) into future decision-making,” said Jonathan Wooldmariam, Director of Forest Fire Reduction and Vegetation Management at SDG&E.

Measures adopted by SDG&E this year to reduce the impact on customers due to power outages include:

  • Bury about 58 miles of underground power lines, which will provide shutdown protection for more than 2,000 customers.
  • Added 60 miles of multi-layer shielded conductors to reduce faults on lines due to contact with branches or animals.
  • Inspection of approximately 250,000 trees in the SDG&E High Fire Risk Zone.
  • Expand tree clearance to 25 feet instead of 10-12 feet.
A crew works on a gas and electric fire hardening project in San Diego in Tierrasanta on July 30.

A crew works on a gas and electric fire hardening project in San Diego in Tierrasanta on July 30.

(Rob Nikolowski/San Diego Union-Tribune)

SDG&E officials say the improvements will help reduce the number of times the facility has to start turning off power.

During the Labor Day holiday in 2020, about 30 residents of Hellhole Canyon, east of the Valley Center, had a power line disconnected. Since then, SDG&E has buried the segment of power lines that serve this community.

“If the same event happens again, these 30 customers in Hellhole Canyon will not be deactivated,” Brian D’Agostino, director of fire science and climate adaptation at SDG&E, told Union-Tribune. “This is an example of how (fire) hardening would make a real difference if the same event happened this year.”

SDG&E has also expanded the development of microgrids, which can operate independently of the larger electrical grid, allowing small areas or communities to keep power flowing for hours at a time during emergencies.

The recently unveiled Cameron Corners microgrid in the remote town of Campo will provide a continuous source of electricity during a safety shutdown using a combination of solar power and non-flammable iron flow batteries designed to last 25 years.

SDG&E has also established a Generator Assistance Program that offers customers who live in the High Fire Threat District a discount of $300 or more on portable generators and spare batteries. Since 2020, more than 2,000 discounts have been released.

Customers in high-risk areas who rely on electrical medical equipment or have disabilities may be eligible for free portable backup batteries. The generator grant program has so far provided more than 3,800 batteries at no charge since 2019.

The cameras are now installed at 221 weather stations in the SDG&E service area, which includes all of San Diego County and part of Orange County.

During a similar presentation last week to the Clean Energy Alliance, Shaun Gahaghan, director of the Wildfire Mitigation Program at SDGE, said during a similar presentation, a community-chosen energy program serving the Northern Territory.

When the power goes out, SDG&E opens community resource centers where locals can get drinks, charge their phones, and access the internet. There are 11 resource centers in cities such as Fallbrook, Boulevard, Julian, Valley Center, and Ramona.

All improvements come at a cost to customers.

Since 2007 Witch Creek, Guejito, and Rice have destroyed more than 1,300 homes, Two people were killed and 40 firefighters were injured and forced more than 10000 To seek shelter at Qualcomm Stadium, SDG&E has spent approximately $3 billion on wildfire prevention and control programs.

The two-day CPUC meeting came as the commission considers sanctioning each of the investor-owned facilities for alleged violations of safety shutdowns in their service areas in 2020.

SDG&E is facing a $24,000 fine for failing to provide advance notice to more than 9,000 customers of three different power shutdowns and missing CPUC filing deadlines regarding details of a pair of shutdowns.

But the potential fines on two other investor-owned facilities in the state are much higher — $12 million for PG&E and $10 million for Edison.

The proposal to the CPUC would also order utilities to give away money collected from their customers so that power companies show that they have “made improvements in identifying, assessing, weighing and reporting public damage when deciding whether to initiate a PSPS event.”

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