Power transmission lines run through Jacumba Hot Springs. File photo

With the threat of climate-fueled wildfires, flooding and heatwaves growing, cleaner, safer, and more resilient energy systems are more critical than ever to our survival and well-being. As a retired fire chief, community leader and long-time resident of this region, I am extremely concerned about public safety, and community and economic resiliency.

I’ve witnessed first-hand how investments in electric grid safety and reliability have yielded force multiplier benefits for our region. Our region’s economy and quality of life is dependent on having a climate-resilient and dependable energy system.   

For those of us who work in public safety, it can’t be over-stated how much progress our local utility, San Diego Gas & Electric, has made to improving wildfire safety by undergrounding power lines, supplementing aerial firefighting resources, and building cutting-edge fire predication models that help firefighting agencies be better prepared. Our wildfire safety innovations in San Diego are widely emulated by utilities nationwide. SDG&E’s aircrane and helicopters have assisted in extinguishing many wildfires regardless of the cause or jurisdiction.

For more than a decade, our region has set itself apart from the rest of California for not having suffered a single, electric equipment-caused catastrophic wildfire when hurricane-force winds hit our backcountry. Reasons include our close collaboration and training between public safety agencies and SDG&E.

In addition to the above measures, SDG&E supports Fire Safe Councils, the Community Emergency Readiness Training (CERT) program and the American Red Cross’ Prepare San Diego initiative through grant funding. These grants allow for outreach and education to our community members about wildfire and home safety; creation of fuel breaks and defensible space around homes and critical infrastructure; various other projects as such street identification through the installation of signage, installation of water storage tanks in remote rural areas; and capacity building funding for local/neighborhood fire safe councils.

It’s important to remember these types of benefits and peace of mind come at a cost. Of course, nobody wants to pay more for energy service, and it’s understandable that we are all frustrated with recent high energy bills, but safety is fundamental.

Fire safe councils are just one link in the ongoing investments needed to ensure energy safety, reliability and security. In addition to the fiscal support for community-based fire safety programs, there needs to be ongoing maintenance and enhancements to the energy system because of growing climate threats and day-to-day wear and tear.

Besides upgrading thousands of miles of power lines, poles, pipes, transformers, and substations, our region also needs to train and retain a skilled labor force for day-to-day energy system operations and maintenance, as well as around-the-clock emergency response. Natural gas and electric field crews often respond to accidents and emergencies at the same time as police and fire to help make an area safe to enter by de-energizing power lines or stopping gas flows.

With climate disasters frequently making news headlines, the public and policy makers, for good reason, expect regulated utilities like SDG&E to do everything they can to modernize energy systems in order to prevent catastrophic wildfires. Coupled with providing clean, safe and reliable energy service 24/7/365, utilities have been charged with building the infrastructure needed to transition to zero-emissions vehicles, electrify buildings, interconnect more solar, wind and energy storage to the grid.

California’s goal is to reach net zero by 2045 and to create and sustain solid jobs as part of the energy transition. It’s a challenging task — if not impossible task — to try to balance the crucial need to meet state policy mandates and continue to make meaningful safety investments for electrical service and keep energy bills as low as possible.

Our region must make further investments in clean energy and energy resiliency. SDG&E has committed to doing just that in its budget proposal for 2024-2027. The reality is these investments in SDG&E’s proposed 2024-2027 budget are not just needed, they will build on earlier investment and provide continued public safety benefits.

In the coming months, there will be much debate about SDG&E’s proposal, known as a general rate case, and it will be subject to intense scrutiny, as it should, by regulators, consumer watchdogs, members of the public and many other stakeholders. SDG&E must be held accountable for every penny it collects from its customers. But let’s also keep in mind, as a region, we must invest in building stronger, safer and cleaner energy systems because our quality of life, public safety, and economic resiliency depends on it.

Augie Ghio has more than four decades of experience in fire service and emergency management and training. He was the assistant fire chief and homeland security director for the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department for 28 years; fire chief of the San Miguel Fire Protection District for six years and SDG&E’s former director of emergency operations.