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California Must Take Back Its Power—Literally

Originally published at http://www.commondreams.org/views/2019/11/01/california-must-take-back-its-power-literally

Los Angeles, Sacramento and many smaller cities in California including Palo Alto and Redding have already been served by public power for more than a century, so the model exists for the rest of the state to put public power in place.

During the first half of the 20th century fierce battles were fought in all major west coast cities to determine who would supply power. In Seattle, Tacoma, Sacramento and Los Angeles public power won out while investor owned power won in Portland, San Francisco, Oakland, San Jose, and San Diego.

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As what I regard as typical of Common Dreams articles, the writer speaks several untruths or misleading statements that are technically true but are often misunderstood. I saw that in the first two paragraphs.

Quote “We Californians are watching our state burn. … Our current “new normal” is an utterly predictable consequence of global warming.”

First, California is located in a climate where wildfires naturally occur, and at a higher rate than in other states, even before global warming.
Second, a more significant cause than ‘global warming’ has been California’s housing and land-use policies. Unable to afford housing where conditions are safe, increasing numbers of homes have been built where wildfire hazard is elevated. In Latin America faced with such problems the poor have built favelas up the sides of mountains ringing the city. No one in California has taken responsibility to prevent that, or to provide safe alternatives.

Quote "and according to Gov. Gavin Newsom, the company was guilty of “two decades of mismanagement, misconduct and failed efforts to improve a woeful safety culture.” "

Remember that Gavin Newsom is a politician, and talented at lying and casting blame on others. His statements should be taken with a grain of salt.

Quote " Meleiza Figueroa explained that “PG&E has gotten all of these subsidies, all of these land easements from the government to build this huge infrastructure that they cannot and will not keep up.”"

Would be interesting to fact check that “all these subsidies, all of these land easements” claim. More importantly, they do keep up the infrastructure. When lines get knocked down in wind-storms the utility pays for workers to restore the lines and power. They even have a history of clearing brush to keep it from knocking down lines. The complaint is that the work and efforts have not been good enough to prevent sparking wildfires in conditions when it is very easy to spark a wildfire.

Quote " Most Californians may have been shocked, during the last few fire seasons, to realize that PG&E is a private company that pays dividends to its investors when it makes profits—which come straight out of the pockets of ratepayers. It serves a majority of households in the nation’s most populous state and operates as a monopoly, reaping profits off the basic needs of Californians."

Most Californians haven’t been paying attention then.
First, those rates “straight out of the pockets of ratepayers” first have to pay for the costs of providing the electricity and maintaining the system, before any of it goes to profit. That PG&E is in bankruptcy means investors can forget about profit, and should plan for “loss of investment”.
Second, people have known about the monopoly for a century or more. Which is why, dating back a century or more it has been a publicly regulated utility and its rates and more recently its business operation have to be approved by a government commission.

Quote " other elected officials in California are making the case for taking PG&E out of private hands. Congressman Ro Khanna, whose district includes Silicon Valley, has said, “It’s time for the state to take ownership of PG&E, and make sure that they are doing what they need to do to keep the power on and keep people safe.”

Figueroa points out that “even if the state were to take over PG&E, they would be inheriting a highly degraded, highly centralized system of power transmission that is just not going to be sustainable and will continue to be hazardous in the long run.”"

Given sentiment in California, go for it. I wouldn’t want to do business in California. Let government do it. And Californians can enjoy, or suffer, the consequences of it. They already pay the highest costs of living in the country. Will government provision of those services be more affordable?

In the Pacific Northwest where public power agencies (most of them either municipal utilities, co-ops, or public utility districts) serve a far greater percentage of the population than is the case in California those public entities in most cases have rates that are not much different from investor owned utilities’ rates. The biggest difference is that system reliability for public power is much higher because ratepayers’ money is used to improve and maintain power infrastructure (local money stays local) while investor owned utilities pay dividends to shareholders in Charlotte, Singapore, Sydney and elsewhere.

Every so often local voters will approve a public entity purchasing the assets of an investor owned utility in their county. This most recently occurred during the past decade when Washington’s Jefferson County Public Utility District (which had provided only water service since its 1940 inception) purchased Puget Sound Energy’s (like PG&E is an investor owned utility) electrical infrastructure located within Jefferson County and now provides power there.

There are likely other examples of this happening in other parts of the US in recent years, models that California can utilize in its transition.

It’s great that people are talking about taking over PG&E, but we should be talking about a total takeover – not just of the “E” (electricity) but also the “G” (natural gas). Californians may remember how an exploding PG&E gas line killed eight people. Another example of PG&E placing profits above public safety.

But the bigger policy issue is that we have to stop using natural gas. It’s a fossil fuel and a potent greenhouse gas when leaked. Just like Exxon, PG&E has every incentive to try to sell more of this planet killer. If California took this over, it could institute a policy of rapid reductions in natural gas use – subsiding conversions to heat pumps, for example.

We’ve got to end “business as usual” before it ends us.

Yes, a fair amount of PG&E’s equipment is in disrepair and the state would be assuming a considerable financial risk. Yet even with all the tax breaks, subsidies, bailouts (check the facts!) over many decades, and having the California Public Utilities Commission in its corner, PG&E has failed miserably to demonstrate safety first. Have you forgotten the company’s felonious negligence in San Bruno?

I would trust an elected council to manage PG&E’s dissolution far more than I trust the craven politicians on the PUC. Moreover, creating a public utility from PG&E’s sorry remains must include elimination of centralized power production and distribution. First and foremost, everyone living in this state must accept that the party is just about over – per capita energy consumption, globally, must shrink – even if the effort is too little too late. Perhaps we’ll all pay more and have less to consume, but that would be compatible for any long-term viability of Homo sapiens. Power (literally and figuratively) needs to be down-sized and localized, distributed fairly and equally at small scales, with communities choosing and implementing the means for common energy production and managing its usage. All this means is the complete abandonment of capitalism. Otherwise, kiss your ass good-bye, and tell your kids and grand-children that you chose greed and sociopathy and ecological ignorance over their futures.