Putting Out Fires with Meteorology

August 17, 2010 · 0 comments

San Diego Gas and Electric has embarked on an ambitious weather-monitoring effort that should warm the hearts of meteorologists–whose help the utility may still need to solve a larger wildfire safety controversy.

SDG&E recently installed 94 solar-powered weather monitoring systems on utility poles scattered in rugged rural San Diego County, where few weather observations are currently available. The purpose is to help prevent and control forest fires during Santa Ana winds. The plan has won plaudits from local fire chiefs and meteorologists alike, since the data will be available to National Weather Service forecasters and models as well as the utility’s own decision makers.

“That makes San Diego the most heavily weather instrumented place on Planet Earth,” says broadcast meteorologist John Coleman in his report on the story for KUSI News.

SDG&E’s intensified interest in meteorological monitoring is precipitated by the hot water the company got into due to its role in forest fires in 2007: Electricity arcing from power lines is blamed for three fires that year that killed two people and destroyed 1,300 homes in rural areas around San Diego. While not acknowledging fault, the company has compensated insurance companies to the tune of over $700 million.

To improve safety the company came up with plans last year to shut off the grid for up to 120,000 people in rural areas if dry weather turns windy–classic Santa Ana conditions. The shut off would initiate in 56 m.p.h.  winds, the design standard for much of the power system, and then power would be restored when sustained winds remained below 40 m.p.h. assuming the lines prove reliable. Southern California Edison used a similar cut-off tactic in 2003 with relatively positive reaction from customers, but the company later aggressively cleared areas around power lines and has not utilized the plan since.

SDG&E, by contrast, had been in federal mediation for months with customers angry about the shut-off plan. One of the main gripes about the plan has been that the power company didn”t expect to warn customers about the outages. The company said it couldn’t predict the winds on a sufficiently localized basis.

Clearly the controversy could be alleviated by enhanced meteorology with the newly established weather stations.  Brian D’Agostino, the local meteorologist who helped SDG&E design the weather monitoring strategy told KGTV Channel 10 News:

We’re taking a lot of areas where we always just figured the winds were at a certain speed and now we’re going to know for sure….Right now, the National Weather Service gets its information once every hour. Now, we’re able to provide it with data every 10 minutes.