SAN DIEGO — For some San Diego County residents, peak fire danger also brings the threat of losing the lights and air conditioning — and utility officials want people to prepare for that reality once again in the coming months.
Experts say it’s true that in California, there is no wildfire “season” anymore; it’s a year-round threat that the state has to constantly prepare for. But with hot, dry conditions meeting gusty winds, late summer and early fall remain the most susceptible.
Recent years brought sharp focus to the role of utility equipment in starting wildfires. Pacific Gas & Electric in Northern California is the poster child, recently agreeing to pay more than $55 million to avoid criminal prosecution for two major fires sparked by its aging power lines.
San Diego Gas & Electric and other utilities have invested large sums in making their infrastructure more resilient, some of which has been reflected in your recent electric bills. But when fire conditions reach their absolute peak, the companies are still forced to rely on an unpopular option: shutting off the power to customers in select areas.
SDG&E has ordered these targeted blackouts, formally called “public safety power shutoffs,” for customers in communities including Alpine, Valley Center, Ramona and Julian in recent years.
In a phone interview last week, SDG&E Communications Manager Alex Welling said shutoffs are a near-certainty again this year, especially between September and November.
“The reality is, there’s likely going to be PSPS,” Welling said, using a common abbreviation for the shutoffs. “And we’re going to be here to help.”
Welling said shutoffs are a “last resort tool” used only “to prevent a catastrophic wildfire.” He touted SDG&E’s moves to improve infrastructure and make blackouts less necessary, including moving power lines underground, replacing wood poles with steel, and even technology that can shut off a falling power line before it hits the ground.
“But those things take time,” he told FOX 5, and de-energizing certain circuits remains the best bet in some scenarios.
A team of meteorologists and safety experts, using some 200 strategically placed weather monitoring stations, measure wind speed, humidity and other factors before making their decision.
Welling said climate change hasn’t helped matters when it comes to fuel moisture, which refers to how quickly and easily plant life can burn. “You look at the drought conditions that the West is having right now, it’s record-setting drought,” he told FOX 5.
And when it comes to wind, conductors and other equipment have ratings, with a maximum wind speed that they can survive. “We know what our equipment out there can withstand,” Welling said.
When its team is presented with the wrong combination of factors, SDG&E may choose to shut off the power in certain areas. The utility has a video outlining the entire decision-making process online.
How you can prepare
Especially if you live in the far reaches of northern or eastern San Diego County, the utility has a number of recommendations to prepare for public safety power shutoffs.
Monitor SDG&E notifications
Welling emphasized that the utility tries to give customers as much notice as possible, and does so repeatedly. That includes notifications by phone and email starting 48 hours before the blackout, when possible, and then again at 24 hours, 12 hours and one to four hours beforehand.
The communications manager said you should make sure your SDG&E contact information is up to date. You can also download the SDG&E app, which Welling highly recommended for detailed info.
The utility advises buying a cheap portable battery or car adaptor as a backup option for charging your phone during the shutoff. You can also visit one of the utility’s community resource centers to charge a small device (more on those below). If you use a landline, it should be unaffected by the power outage — make sure that number is registered with the utility.
Find your nearest community resource center
This page has a complete list of potential community resource centers, where residents can stay cool, get snacks and water and charge their phones during a public safety power shutoff.
The utility varies which centers are open based on where power is shutoff. It will post updates here.
Attend a wildfire safety fair
SDG&E is hosting events with emergency kit backpack giveaways, sign-ups for notifications on power shutoffs, informative presentations and more. All safety fairs run from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.
- Ramona — Saturday, June 18: Ramona Outdoor Community Center
- Alpine — Saturday, July 16: Viejas Casino East End Parking Lot
- Valley Center — Saturday, Aug. 13: Bates Nut Farm
- Julian — Saturday, Aug. 27: Julian High School
‘Microgrids’ offer some relief
SDG&E has built several “microgrids” in remote parts of the county, including one that was recently completed in Campo.
When circuits are de-energized, these power centers use a combination of solar and battery storage or diesel power to give juice to critical parts of the community. That includes schools, emergency service buildings, medical facilities and even small corner stores or gas stations, depending on the area, Welling said.
So far, some form of microgrid has been installed in Borrego Springs, Ramona, Butterfield Ranch, Shelter Valley and Campo, with hopes for more to come in the future.
The ‘other’ summer blackouts
SDG&E is focused on public safety power shutoffs because that’s the kind of planned power outage they have control over — but there’s another threat to your A/C this summer, too.
That comes down to broader questions about the reliability and supply of California’s electric grid, which saw rotating blackouts in 2020 due to an energy shortage for the first time in nearly 20 years.
An extremely hot summer and constrained supplies could risk a repeat of those blackouts this summer, the San Diego Union-Tribune reports.
As the paper’s Rob Nikolewski explains, California’s grid managers are particularly concerned about problems arising during “net peak demand” on hot days. That’s when the sun goes down — and therefore solar power production drops off — but residents are still cranking their air conditioning to deal with lingering heat.
The state says it’s taken successful steps to deepen its electricity reserves since 2020, but everything from hotter weather to pandemic-related supply chain issues pose challenges for the months ahead.