At Terra Firma, we rely utterly on PG&E not just to keep the lights on, but to run our irrigation, washing and drinking water pumps and refrigerate our produce. But for the many people who might take it for granted exactly how dependent they are on the giant utility company in their daily lives, it was frustrating and inconvenient to have no power for an entire day and night last week.
The initial media coverage of the event, along with responses of politicians, was to treat the event the same way they would a hurricane or snowstorm Among others, our Governor praised PGE for using “industry best practices” to prevent fires.
The problem was that for most people in most areas where the power was shut off, there was no extreme weather. No crazy wind, no extremely low humidity, and certainly none of the hot weather that helped spark the Napa and Sonoma fires of 2017. On the flip side, there were a few fires even where power was shutoff.
The rest of PGE’s service area saw a routine “offshore” wind event, the kind that happen several times each fall without causing any big disasters. Their mismanaged power shutoff was the disaster, essentially mimicking a big winter storm or medium sized earthquake in creating an enormous disruption to people’s lives across a huge geographic area, costing our economy hundreds of millions of dollars in the process.
In the days after the power shutoff, the reports began to flood in of how poorly the utility company handled the situation: witnesses in the PGE response center described it as “chaos”, with organizational, computer and communication systems failing from the start.
Regulators and politicians began to take the position they should have from the start: the utility that most of Northern California depends on for both electricity and natural gas cannot be allowed to shut off power to millions of people simply based on a weather forecast. They need to figure out how to keep the power on without starting fires.
PGE routinely asks its regulator, the Public Utilities Commission, for rate increases to pay for upgrades to its systems — money that comes from its customers. But that money has not been spent on improving infrastructure or building systems that allow more flexibility and resilience to more extreme weather. Instead, much of the money has gone to executive pay and dividends to shareholders.
But PGE also lavishes spending on lobbying and campaign contributions to state politicians, including Governor Newsom. Here’s a link to one news story about it, but it’s easy enough to find more on Google. There are very few elected officials in California who don’t take money from PGE.
And PGE also has a very sophisticated program of spending money on charities, community groups, schools and local areas. When they need support on an issue, they come back to these groups and local elected officials, and ask for signatures or endorsements.
PGE is a state-regulated monopoly that a majority of Californians depend on for our light, heat, air-conditioning, cooking, refrigeration, etc. It is currently in negotiations with the state government over its liability from the disastrous fires it has caused. Why are elected officials allowed to continue taking campaign contributions from them at all? It’s a clear conflict of interest.
I’m glad that the PUC is taking action against PGE, but they need more support from elected officials. But I hope that last week’s power shut off debacle will focus a little more of Californian’s attention on the corrupt relationship between PGE and our state government.