San Diego utility pushes rural shut-off plan

SAN DIEGO, CALIFORNIA - A utility is trying to revive a novel plan to prevent wildfires by cutting electricity in dry, windy weather, less than a month after being rebuffed by regulators.

San Diego Gas & Electric Co. officials began contacting critics to discuss the plan and other fire prevention measures.

Last month, the California Public Utilities Commission rejected SDG&E's plan to cut power to 60,000 homes and businesses in a vast swath of San Diego's bedroom communities, which would have eliminated a potential ignition source.

Under the plan, electricity would be cut if five weather conditions were met, including gauges like wind speed, humidity in the air and moisture in sticks and twigs.

Critics noted that a number of systems would fail immediately or within hours — including life-critical medical devices, water pumps, phones, televisions, garage door openers and traffic lights — and argued that it would create enormous dangers before flames even arrived.

Regulators said SDG&E could propose the plan again, but only if it tried to reach agreement with opponents. That will be a hard sell.

"There's nothing to collaborate on in terms of their shut-off plan that the PUC said no to," said Dianne Jacob, chairwoman of the county Board of Supervisors. "We shouldn't even be wasting our time talking about that."

Utility Vice President Richard Morrow said in a letter going to rural customers that power would only be cut as a last resort. Morrow acknowledged the PUC finding that shutting off electricity could be dangerous but said it might be necessary to protect public safety.

Power lines cause a tiny percentage of wildfires but have wrought enormous damage.

A sycamore limb fell on a SDG&E line to spark one of Southern California's biggest fires in 2007, regulators found. Others were started that year when two SDG&E lines lashed and a Cox Communications cable line struck one of the utility's wires.

SDG&E, a unit of San Diego-based Sempra Energy, has paid $740 million in legal settlements, with more claims pending.



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