SDG&E is getting ready to begin its second phase of work in the Rancho Santa Fe community, replacing old wooden utility poles with new steel poles and converting the system to enhance safety and improve reliability.
Willie Thomas, fire risk mitigation program manager at SDG&E, provided an update to the Rancho Santa Fe Association board on April 4 about the plan to replace 57 poles, install two new poles and upgrade the lines from 4 kV to 12 kV. Construction is expected to begin the week of May 13.
Last year during phase one’s work that replaced 70 poles, over 200 people signed a petition to stop SDG&E’s project and to advocate for undergrounding to reduce both visual blight and fire risk. The Association board even explored the possibility of securing an injunction against the project.
Thomas said SDG&E is taking a different approach in Rancho Santa Fe for this second phase.
“We’re trying to put our best foot forward here and making sure it goes as clean and precise as possible,” said Thomas. “We’ve made quite a few changes in how we’re trying to manage this particular project.”
Thomas said the biggest changes include using internal crews and keeping open communication with the Association. SDG&E has proposed meeting with the Association every two weeks to ensure that the public is not adversely affected by the project and to coordinate construction with HP Communication’s ongoing work on the fiber optic network.
Starting in May there are 115 locations where crews will be working, replacing 23,452 feet of overhead wire and 13,800 feet of underground wire. They will replace 57 wooden poles with steel and they estimate 10 will be placed using a helicopter.
Thomas pointed out that while voltage is increasing doesn’t mean the power is increasing, “There’s no change in power but we are putting up more resilient facilities with steel poles.”
Construction is expected to take four months and the staging yard has moved from Calzada Del Bosque to San Dieguito Road and El Camino Real. Thomas said they hope to keep traffic delays and planned outages to a minimum—planned outages are unknown at this time but SDG&E will provide notification by mail within 10 working days.
Thomas said SDG&E works closely with third parties that are attached to their poles to help them transfer their facilities as soon as possible. If the facilities are not moved within 90 days the pole becomes the property and responsibility of the third party. Orion Broadband has acknowledged its equipment remains on four old poles no longer used by SDG&E, however, SDG&E has identified 17. Both Thomas and RSF Association Manager Christy Whalen said Orion has not been responsive about removing its poles.
During the update, RSF Association Director Mike Gallagher questioned why SDG&E has not rethought its position on undergrounding utilities in the community, particularly given what happened in Northern California with PG&E filing for bankruptcy as a result of the potential liabilities faced from wildfires caused over the last two years.
“Best practice seems to be undergrounding,” Gallagher said.
Gallagher said Rancho Santa Fe is considered enough of a high fire risk area that insurance companies have taken it off their coverage grids because of wildfire concerns. Additionally, he said due to the nature of the community with its winding roads, dark sky policy and power poles right next to roads, cars can and frequently have taken out power poles which causes outages as well as a potential fire threat. He said taking all of those factors into account, he doesn’t understand why SDG&E wouldn’t consider it a prime area for undergrounding.
Gallagher said while Thomas and his team have established a good working relationship with the Association, he could not say the same about the management of SDG&E.
“We had asked for a meeting with the senior management at SDG&E to talk about this issue,” Gallagher said. “The meeting was requested in January, originally offered for June, this meeting is taking place now and the project starts in May. It was a disingenuous offer in my opinion.”
Thomas explained that SDG&E is 60 percent underground on the distribution side, one of the highest in the state and country. Undergrounding utilities is more expensive and they prioritize areas in higher risk threat areas such as Julian, Palomar, Valley Center that get higher winds more frequently.
According to Thomas, Rancho Santa Fe is not considered part of the high fire risk district map that was put together by the California Public Utilities Commission in December 2017.
“We do recognize that the map is imperfect, we are trying to accommodate areas that we think are in that wildland urban interface,” Thomas said. “We are limited with resources, time and money and what we’ve done with our fire risk mitigation program is assess the risk and the monies we have available to try to come up with what we can, as quickly as we can, to prioritize things.”
Thomas said fire risk mitigation is more than just undergrounding. Other ways SDG&E works to mitigate fire risk includes vegetation management, meteorologists on staff and high definition cameras for fire detection in fire-prone areas. If extreme fire weather conditions are observed, they may shut off power for public safety. Thomas said that doesn’t happen in Rancho Santa Fe as often as other areas, although power was shut off in the community last November during a red flag warning.
“We’re continuing to look at options to minimize fire risk,” Thomas said, noting SDG&E’s practices of situational awareness, operational changes, more frequent inspections in higher fire prone areas and projects like this where they are rebuilding infrastructure.