San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E) is a major utility company in Southern California that provides natural gas and electricity services to 3.7 million people in San Diego County and southern Orange County. Established in 1881, it is one of eight investor-owned electric utilities in California that are regulated by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC). It is owned by Sempra, an energy services holding company.
Following the Witch-Guejito and Rice fires in 2007, SDG&E has maintained a clean wildfire track record. This has largely been attributed to its proactive and innovative wildfire mitigation efforts, which have put it leaps ahead of other California utility companies. While its operations have not escaped all criticism, SDG&E is generally seen as a responsible utility that prioritizes safety.
SDG&E has managed to avoid any major wildfires since 2007, though the utility company says it is impossible to completely eliminate fire risk. The company said the chances of its equipment sparking a wildfire in any given year is 5%, and that it will almost certainly cause a major wildfire within the next 20 years.
The company has used this in part as justification for raising electrical rates for its customers in Southern California. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, San Diego paid the highest electrical rates in the country in 2022 and is projected to lead 2023, as well.
2022 average electrical rates per kWh:
Utility companies must get approval from the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) before they raise electrical rates. Utility companies can also request to pass off various operational costs to their ratepayers, including wildfire mitigation expenses, which is typically allowed.
SDG&E is arguably the safest operating utility in California—it has been overwhelmingly proactive and responsible where so many other utilities have enraged regulators and the public with their reckless and destructive ways. Still, many people are wary of the power and responsibility for-profit utility companies hold in California.
As such, many cities in San Diego, including Imperial Beach, La Mesa, Encinitas, San Diego, and Chula Vista, are now giving residents the option to buy their electricity from San Diego Community Energy. SDCP is a community choice aggregator, a type of government-run non-profit organization. SDG&E still owns the power grid, but starting in mid-2022, most customers were automatically enrolled in SDCP’s standard plan, though they were able to switch back to SDG&E if desired. News outlets have called this the end of SDG&E’s century-long monopoly in San Diego.
In the coming years, climate change and a number of other factors are set to increase wildfire risk in California. It remains to be seen how SDG&E’s wildfire mitigation efforts fare or when, as the company maintains, the next major wildfire will spark.
Fires attributed to SDG&E from 2007 to present.
SDG&E was found responsible for two wildfires in 2007.
The Witch-Guejito Fire burned 197,990 acres, damaged or destroyed 1736 structures, and killed 2 people. The Witch Fire ignited on October 21st, 2007 in southern San Diego County near Santa Ysabel and later merged with the Guejito Fire that sparked on October 22nd near San Pasqual. It would later merge with the Poomacha and McCoy Fires and become known as the Witch–Guejito–Poomacha Complex Fire.
The Witch Fire was caused by a downed power line, and SDG&E was later found to be negligent for not cutting power to the line. The Guejito Fire ignited when lashing wire owned by Cox Communications hit an SDG&E power line. It has never been determined whether either company acted negligently.
The Rice Fire burned 9,472 acres and damaged or destroyed 248 structures. It ignited in Fallbrook on October 22nd, 2007. The fire was caused by a tree branch that snapped and fell on an SDG&E powerline. Investigators determined the utility company had violated safety regulations because it failed to properly trim the vegetation near its equipment.
The majority of the damages from the fires were covered by SDG&E’s liability insurance and third parties, but the utility was still on the hook for $379 million worth of claims and legal fees. It attempted to pass these costs onto its ratepayers but its requests were denied by the CPUC and state courts. A final say was given in 2019 by the U.S. Supreme Court, which refused to even hear the case.
Following the proceedings, SDG&E still maintained that the fires occurred due to circumstances beyond its control.
SDG&E paid out roughly $2.4 billion to settle approximately 2,500 civil lawsuits for the Witch-Guejito and Rice Fires.
In 2009, SDG&E agreed to a $14.4 million settlement to be paid to the CPUC’s Consumer Protection and Safety Division. An additional $400,000 would go towards a computer work module for the CPSD, and any remaining would be added to the division’s general fund. SDG&E also agreed to additional wildfire safety measures, including supplemental vegetation management training.
In 2012, SDG&E reached a $27 million settlement with the City of San Diego over damages from the two wildfires. The city cited fire emergency responses, loss of revenue from leases, damage to city-owned structures, and ecological damage.
SDG&E is currently not facing any active lawsuits related to wildfires.
SDG&E is considered a leader in wildfire mitigation in the California power industry. Since the Witch-Guejito and Rice Fires in 2007, the utility company has invested over $3 billion in a variety of safety measures to prevent catastrophic wildfires. It also has not caused a major fire since then.
The company is renowned for its Fire Science & Climate Adaptation Department and premier weather network that boasts 177 stations for monitoring fire risk. It has also enlisted the help of AI-based predictive models in recent years to help the company better predict weather forecasts and wildfire risks. In 2023, San Diego Gas & Electric received the Chartwell Best Practices Award for its Wildfire Next Generation System (WiNGS), which “models climate scenarios and recommends grid hardening initiatives,” as well as other mitigation actions.
In April 2023, SDG&E submitted an application to the U.S. Department of Energy seeking up to $100 million in federal funds through the Grid Resilience and Innovation Partnerships Grant program. The grant would help the utility company harden its infrastructure on and around Tribal Nations’ land. With approval from the CPUC, SDG&E would match the $100 million funds. The company said seeking the grant is part of its strategy “to lessen the financial burden and improve affordability for customers.” Utility companies are often approved to pass off the cost of their wildfire mitigation efforts to ratepayers.
According to SDG&E’s 2023 Wildfire Mitigation Plan, the company plans to spend a combined $2.25 billion dollars on its mitigation efforts over the next three years (2023-2025).
In 2013, SDG&E became the first utility company in California to adopt and implement Public Safety Power Shutoffs (PSPS). Utility companies must exercise careful discretion when deciding to initiate power shutoffs because it creates serious public safety risks, particularly for seniors and those who rely on electricity for medical devices.
SDG&E has said it recognizes the difficulties power shutoffs can cause and that it “utilizes PSPS as a last resort tool to mitigate the risk of wildfires during high-risk weather.” The company also broke its grid into smaller segments so it could shut power off only in isolated areas with the highest fire risk.
The company also said system hardening helps reduce the need for power shutoffs, while grid sectionalizing ensures shutoffs impact as few customers as possible. SDG&E has a public notification system in place to alert its customers via phone, text, and/or email ahead of a potential PSPS.
Since 2007, SDG&E has replaced 26,000 wood poles with fire-resistant steel poles and undergrounded over 10,000 miles of overhead power lines. These poles are designed to withstand 85 and sometimes up to 111 mph wind speeds, according to SDG&E’s website. The utility company says it plans to underground more lines to protect the system and reduce the number of planned power outages (PSPS).
SDG&E maintains more than 480,000 trees in its service area as part of its Vegetation Management Program to reduce wildfire risk. Its efforts include clearing vegetation and trees near power lines, removing poles that are out-of-use, and additional inspection activities.
In 2019, SDG&E introduced an advanced power line protection system that cuts off power to a falling power line before it hits the ground. The company determined the system had to be able to de-energize the line in less than 1.37 seconds and has begun integrating the system across its grid.
SDG&E has implemented other innovative measures to proactively prevent power lines from causing wildfires. At its annual Wildfire Safety Fairs in 2023, the company unveiled weed-eating goats that it will use to clear brush and other vegetation-ignition sources around electric infrastructure.
The utility company’s methods have not all been well received, however. SDG&E was criticized by utility watchdogs for its vegetation management plan for 2020—the utility wanted to clear 25 feet of vegetation around its equipment when the minimum requirement was 12 feet.
“If you clear out a whole bunch of space around the lines, grasses and non-native species that are much more fire-prone can grow underneath, which increases your fire risk,” said Nat Skinner, safety branch manager at the Public Advocates Office.
Moreover, SDG&E did not provide any science or research to back up its plan. In May 2019, the CPUC also voiced its concerns and said it would allow the clearance range if it was supported by scientific evidence or data. SDG&E would also have to provide detailed guidelines of which areas it wanted to do it.
Despite the utility company failing to provide any of this information, the CPUC approved the plan under the condition that SDG&E justify its practices in the next plan.