County seeks to improve coordination of public safety power shutoffs

RSF Association Manager Christy Whalen said the Association is concerned about power shutoffs and their impact on residents and safety in the Ranch.
(Getty Images)

The San Diego County Board of Supervisors is looking for ways to reduce the disruptions caused by public safety power shutoffs on local communities.

In January 2020, the board of supervisors accepted $1,214,656 in Community Power Resiliency funds from the state to mitigate the impact of power shutoff events—funding was used to install emergency generators at county libraries and fire stations. On March 2, the board approved another $607,328 in state funding to provide back-up power at an additional three fire stations and 54 traffic signals at major intersections in the unincorporated areas.

On March 2, the board additionally approved Supervisor Jim Desmond and Joel Anderson’s proposal to develop a coordinated plan to increase regional resiliency, directing the county’s chief administrative officer to collaborate with all stakeholders to identify opportunities to further reduce the shutoffs’ impacts on the region.

Since 2013, SDG&E has used power shutoffs as a preventative measure to protect against wildfire during extreme weather conditions such as high wind events. Last year, many San Diego County residents were without power on Thanksgiving weekend and some early December days due to the threat of Santa Ana winds. Some Fallbrook residents were without power on Christmas Eve as a fire burned on Camp Pendleton. As shutoffs are growing in frequency, Desmond said it’s critical for the county to work with SDG&E and all affected stakeholders to develop protocols and identify resources to minimize impacts caused by the shutoffs.

“As annoying as they can be, the shutoffs actually aid in preventing mass devastation throughout our county,” Desmond said.

The community of Rancho Santa Fe has been impacted by power safety shutoffs over the last two years. During the latest one, in December 2020, SDG&E turned off the power to approximately 73,300 customers to reduce wildfire risk due to high wind gusts. Many Rancho Santa Fe homeowners and Rancho Santa Fe Association properties were without power and the Rancho Santa Fe School District had to close R. Roger Rowe School for two days.

RSF Association Manager Christy Whalen said they are concerned about power shutoffs and their impact on residents and safety in the Ranch.

Whalen said the Association would encourage SDG&E to shut off power only as needed and to provide residents with more specific warnings both in advance and just prior to the planned outage.

“If SDG&E communicated directly to residents only in the affected circuits an hour or 30-minutes prior to shut off that would provide us with time to open or close garages and gates, ensure medical equipment has back-up power, save computer files and make other last-minute preparations for the outage,” Whalen said. “We appreciate the advance notice, and it would be even more helpful if additional communications were more timely and targeted to those directly affected.”

At the March 2 supervisors meeting, Joe Gabaldon, public affairs manager for SDG&E, said safety is the foundation of everything they do and they have invested in a variety of measures to reduce wildfire risk including fire-hardening its infrastructure, vegetation management and using advanced weather technology.

“Public Safety Power Shutoffs are an important tool to keep the region safe,” Gabaldon said. “We do not take this responsibility lightly and only use shutoffs as a last resort.”

Gabaldon said SDG&E does gather feedback after every red flag warning season but they are looking forward to enhancing coordination with the county.

Whalen said that ultimately the best mitigation for wildfire risk is to underground utilities, especially in heavily-forested areas like the Ranch.

“It’s a safety issue,” Whalen said. “The Association has worked with the county to get on the priority list to fund undergrounding of power lines, but that’s several years away. We urge SDG&E to consider funding the undergrounding of more poles as a safety precaution in addition to other fire mitigation efforts.”