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SDG&E: Wooden power pole replacement complete in East County

$700 million price tag included undergrounding 14 miles of lines. Advocates question profit motive.

SAN DIEGO — A $700-million project to upgrade San Diego Gas & Electric power lines in East County is finally finished, according to the utility company.

SDG&E said the upgrades will reduce both wildfire risk and public safety power shutoffs.

Ratepayer advocates said the capital improvements could also lead to big profits for the utility.

The $700-million price tag to replace wooden poles and upgrade power lines applied to capital improvements mainly in the Cleveland National Forest, the utility said.

“It was primarily wood to steel pole replacement,” said Tim Knowd, the SDG&E project manager. “The work that we did on this project will definitely make the San Diego County backcountry safer.”

SDG&E calls the work “fire hardening” with the goal of fire prevention and increased public safety.

“A fire-hardened electric system is less likely to be subject to public safety power shutoffs,” said Knowd. “The conductors were also put further apart from each other so we have greater ground-to-sky clearance, as well as wire-to-wire clearance, which provides benefits in high winds and Santa Ana wind type conditions.”

Critics of SDG&E said the real reason for these expensive capital improvement projects is profit.

“All these fire-hardening expenses are just driving our rates through the roof,” said Bill Powers, a ratepayer advocate with the nonprofit Protect Our Communities Foundation.

Powers has testified before the California Public Utilities Commission about profit margins that companies like SDG&E make on large capital projects, like the ones in the East County.

“All they have to do is convince a commission to give them the green light and they get an automatic profit of, whatever it is, 10 or 12%,” Powers said.  “Any hardware they own, they make money on; they make profit on.”

SDG&E said their main motive is fire prevention but admitted the company gets reimbursed by ratepayers for its capital projects.

“Our capital projects, those investments we do get cost recovery for.  And this, again, is a safety program of work that we are implementing to mitigate the fire risk in the backcountry for our customers,” Knowd said.

Powers questioned the need for wooden pole replacement in the first place.

“Those wood poles that have now been replaced were in perfectly good condition. The commission audited those poles,” Powers said.  “The wood poles were in fine condition and had nothing to do with the fires, but to a layperson, they hear OK wood burns and steel doesn't burn so I guess it makes sense.”

SDG&E said the project also included undergrounding 14 miles of power lines and removing 19 miles of power lines, which the utility said may help reduce wildfires.

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