Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2009 | If weather conditions continue to mirror previous autumns, the gusty Santa Ana winds will scream through San Diego’s canyons this year and transform the backcountry’s brush into matchstick fields. Firefighters will talk about their battles in 2003 and 2007, and meteorologists will try to predict the region’s danger zones.

But for San Diego Gas & Electric, this season will be significantly different than previous years. The financial pressure of liability costs associated with another firestorm could weigh heavily on the option to proactively turn off the power in dry, rural areas of the county. The controversial shut-off plan failed to win the guaranteed approval from state officials Thursday, but it’s not completely out the window. The utility could choose to turn off the power in certain weather conditions and argue in defense of the action in the event of any legal review. It would be navigating gray waters and taking a multi-million dollar gamble.

“Whether the utility can turn off power proactively before a fire were to begin, based upon the fear of factors that could lead to a fire, is not legally clear,” said Michael Shames, executive director of the Utility Consumers’ Action Network. “It was hoped that the commission’s decision would clarify that point.”

The Public Utilities Commission’s decision last week soundly rejected the proposed shut-off plan, but it failed to provide further guidance on what fire hazards, if any, would constitute a threat to public safety and allow the utility to turn off power to protect it from liability. SDG&E had proposed five climate conditions related to fire risk, but the commission rejected the plan for various reasons, including the need for more regional support.

In the written decision approved by the commission, the state rejected the climate conditions proposed by SDG&E as a legitimate way of measuring the risk to public safety.

However, it supported the utility’s broad legal authority to determine whether its own operations could run safely. “For example, there is no dispute that SDG&E may need to shut off power in order to protect public safety if Santa Ana winds exceed the design limits for SDG&E’s system and threaten to topple power lines onto tinder dry brush,” according to the written decision.

While striking down the shut-off plan, the commission declined to set explicit limits on how a proactive outage could be appropriately used to protect public safety. If approved, the shut-off plan would have set a clear set of guidelines for SDG&E and other utilities across the state that face annual fire protection issues. Instead, the commission sustained the status quo, which gives the utility broad language to interpret its service requirements and that leaves most people in the gray.

SDG&E officials have always argued for their emergency authority and that the shut-off plan would be a more structured version of current emergency outages. Under the shut-off plan, residents could have received warnings and some equipment aimed at making the outage less inconvenient. Under the status quo, the power will just go off if the utility determines the outage is necessary under its judgment of the service requirements. It could be responsible for explaining its judgment if the action if called into question.

SDG&E officials have stayed out of the public limelight since the commission’s decision but they issued a statement shortly after the ruling. It said the utility was disappointed in the commission’s decision on the shut-off plan but it was “important to point out that the CPUC reaffirmed SDG&E’s statutory authority and responsibility to operate our system safely.” In short, the utility still has legal approval to turn the power off in emergency situations.

It’s possible, although unlikely, that SDG&E could still choose to turn off power to backcountry residents this fire season under the climate conditions outlined in the shut-off plan. However, without the commission’s pre-approval, the decision to turn off power would be a gamble. The commission could later decide that the utility’s action violated its service requirements and the company could be held liable for any damages related to the outage.

“Certainly SDG&E can shut off power whenever it wants, but it will be liable for circumstances that happen if it’s not an emergency situation,” argued Sophie Akins, an attorney who represents some schools and water districts opposed to the shut-off plan. “We’ve had no indication to date that it plans on implementing its shut-off plan absent of the commission’s approval.”

Officials for SDG&E have declined to comment on the shut-off plan’s future or the commission’s decision since last week. The utility could appeal but that process would not be completed before this year’s fire season. It seems unlikely that the utility would go forward with the shut-off plan because the commission has already rejected the proposal, but it could turn toward implementing a similar program with different guidelines.

Augie Ghio is fire chief of the San Miguel Consolidated Fire Protection District and president of the San Diego County Fire Chiefs Association. He has publicly supported the shut-off plan and still says the public is less safe without that guaranteed option on the table.

“The decision by the PUC did not alter the other parts of the (utility’s) fire protection program,” Ghio said. “It makes it more of a critical business decision from a liability standpoint … because the liability’s on them.”

As it has been pointed out, the driving factor behind the shut-off plan is money. And to be clear, the company is trying to protect itself from millions of dollars worth of liability costs. Its last bill for settling damages associated with the 2007 fires was $740 million and its insurance rates have increased three or four times in the last year. It’s already spent millions of dollars on making some facilities more fire resistant and hiring a private company to help prevent fires.

For the time being, officials at SDG&E are considering their options. The commission recommended that any modified version of the shut-off plan include more collaboration with those who would be affected by the proposal within 30 days. The clock is ticking, and the Santa Ana winds are approaching as they always have.

Please contact Keegan Kyle directly at keegan.kyle@voiceofsandiego.org and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/keegankyle. And set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

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