San Diego

County Supervisor Demands Investigation for SDG&E's Power Shut-offs During Lilac Fire

Questions have been raised regarding SDG&E’s motives for cutting power to 17,000 customers

San Diego County Supervisor Dianne Jacob is demanding the state's Public Utilities Commission review the San Diego Gas & Electric Company's decision to cut power to approximately 17,000 customers during December's Lilac Fire.

In a letter sent Tuesday to PUC President Michael Picker, Jacob questioned SDG&E’s motives and its explanation for that controversial action.

She noted that SDG&E has requested an extension to file a required report on why it “de-energized” homes and businesses in the fire’s path.

“Without receipt of the report and a thorough investigation by the Commission, there is no way to know if SDG&E’s decision was reasonably necessary to respond to unusual conditions or just a result of SDG&E’s failure to design and maintain its system in accordance with design standards that account for regularly occurring high winds in the region,” Jacob wrote.

SDG&E has maintained that the shut-offs were necessary to prevent downed power lines from sparking more fires.

But Jacob now wants the PUC to “…determine if it was really necessary as a ‘last resort’ to reduce the risk of wildfire…”

Her letter notes that some North County residents were left with no power to pump well water to fight the fire.

Jacob also said some SDG&E customers could not provide food and water for farm animals when their power was shut off.

She accused the utility of failing to reimburse some customers for spoiled foodand lost wages, and told PUC that "many residents shared utility bills with my office that showed they were charged for using electricity, even when there was no power to their home or business."

SDG&E strongly defended its actions as necessary to prevent more fires.

The utility told NBC 7 that “contrary to what Supervisor Jacob stated in her letter, SDG&E does in fact have CPUC authority to shut off power in emergency situations when necessary to protect public safety.”

An SDG&E spokesperson said the Lilac Fire presented “extreme weather conditions creating dangerous fire conditions… with winds upwards of 80 mph in some of the most fire-prone areas of the county and humidity in the single digits… The actions we took to de-energize power were to protect public safety.”

The utility also said it has made “significant improvements to its electric grid when it comes to wildfire preparedness,” but noted that it must act quickly to prevent potentially devastating accidents. For example, a tarp in a customer’s back yard could be blown directly into power lines, sparking a fire.

“This is an example of the type of conditions our pre-staged crews are looking for that could pose a threat to the integrity of our system,” the spokesperson said. “With no power flowing through that power line, an ignition source is eliminated, protecting our communities from the potential of another catastrophic wildfire.”

SDG&E also said it has already responded to Jacob’s concerns about customers who were allegedly charged for power they did not use.

The utility said there has been a delay in transmitting energy-use data from its smart meters to some customers’ on-line accounts, and promised it will not bill customers for power during outages.

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