REGION: Utilities Commission sets March hearings

Utilities Commission sets March hearings

1 February 2009

published by

USA — State regulators have scheduled four hearings to give the public a chance to sound off on the kinds of rules they think should be adopted to keep power lines from sparking wildfires when Santa Ana winds blow.

In response to the October 2007 fires that ravaged much of Southern California, the California Public Utilities Commission announced last fall that it planned to write safety-based regulations that the state’s major utilities, including San Diego Gas & Electric Co., will have to follow.

No regulations have been proposed; that will come later.

Regulators say they are looking for ideas on the maximum number of wires that should be strung from a single pole, how wires should be kept away from trees and shrubs, and how wires should be kept from slapping each other in high wind.

Andrew Kotch, an agency spokesman in San Francisco, said utility commissioners have until November to make a decision.

The rule-making exercise is one of four Public Utilities Commission proceedings under way in response to the 2007 wildfires.

The second is an investigation examining whether three of the 2007 fires —- Witch Creek, Guejito and Rice Canyon —- occurred in part because SDG&E failed to follow existing state safety rules.

Another is looking into whether Cox Communications played a role in the start of the Guejito fire by operating its cables in violation of the rules.

Both companies deny they broke any rules.

A fourth proceeding is under way to consider SDG&E’s proposal to shut off power to as many as 45,000 customers in the fire-prone backcountry of San Diego County during extreme Santa Ana conditions.

SDG&E’s plan ignited a firestorm of opposition in rural areas last fall, and area water districts sued to block it.

That prompted the company to back away from its effort to put the plan in place without state oversight, after repeatedly insisting it did not need approval.

And the company filed a formal application asking the utility commission to authorize the controversial policy.

An attorney for Valley Center, Fallbrook, Rainbow and Ramona water districts filed a protest Jan. 21, saying the policy would put their customers at risk.

If power is cut off during the worst fire danger periods, the districts could be prevented from pumping water when it is needed most to put out fires, wrote Sophie Akins, a lawyer with Best Best & Krieger in San Diego.

Akins maintained that SDG&E’s plan was premature because the state’s investigation could find that the fires would not have started, had the San Diego utility been following existing rules.

And she said that in turning the power off, SDG&E would be shirking its responsibility to provide electricity to the entire region.

Nonsense, said SDG&E spokeswoman Stephanie Donovan. She said utilities for years have cut power to customers from time to time for a variety of reasons, including safety concerns and a lack of electricity to power air conditioners on hot days.

And it’s not as if the districts wouldn’t be able to pump water, Donovan said.

“We think that the water districts have got it wrong,” she said. “In their filing, they already admit they have backup generation.”

The bottom line, she said, is “we are trying to prevent fires.”

Donovan said SDG&E has asked the commission to deliver a decision by July 9, to give it time to put the plan into effect next fall.

As for new statewide rules, Diane Conklin, spokeswoman for the Mussey Grade Road Alliance in Ramona, offered a suggestion last week.

In a report to the commission, she said utilities should have to report every fire started by a wire to the Public Utilities Commission, no matter how small.

“Without the data, you don’t see the full picture,” Conklin said by telephone. “In order to learn from these incidents, you have to know what happened.”

The local hearings are set for 2 and 7 p.m. March 17 at the Al Bahr Shriners Center, 5440 Kearny Mesa Road, San Diego.

Hearings also are planned for March 10 in Santa Cruz and March 18 in Los Angeles.

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