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It’s time to turn off the lights for good on Pacific Gas & Electric Company (PG &E) — the power company without power, money or the will to do routine maintenance, nor competent management that puts the public’s safety ahead of profit or political influence.
A Felon/Company, convicted of six felonies in 2016 following its criminal negligence in the San Bruno gas explosions six years earlier, PG & E told a federal judge, the week before the single-largest blackout in California State history, that they couldn’t meet their court-ordered deadline for routine “vegetation management,” or tree trimming.
Under a 5-year, court-supervised probation as a convicted felon, PG & E was directed to trim 2,455 miles of trees away from it’s powerlines. That amounts to less than 2.5 percent of the 100,000 miles of powerlines PG & E operates. Federal Judge William Alsup had previously ordered the utility to aggressively adhere to “vegetation management laws,” after their tree-trimming negligence — ignited by their own faulty powerlines — resulted in two consecutive years of the most destructive wildfires in State history, killing 107 people, and incinerating hundreds of thousands of acres, and thousand of homes and commercial structures.
However, the power company without power or commitment to public safety or common sense, admitted in court that they were only able to trim the trees away from 760 miles of powerlines — or less than one-third of the amount of tree-trimming they committed to do, and less than one percent of the total miles of powerlines for which they are legally responsible to maintain.
PG&E told the court they couldn’t find enough workers to do the work, without producing any evidence of how hard they tried. The power company also failed to explain how it was able to pay $5 billion of dividends prior to declaring bankruptcy this past January, and make $4.4 million of political contributions in 2018, including donating $200,000 to Governor Gavin Newsom, and millions of dollars more to both the California State Democratic and Republican parties, State Lawmakers and Attorney General Javier Becerra. None of that non-tree trimming related spending includes the ratepayer dollars wasted at Silver Oak Winery in Sonoma County earlier this month, when PG & E executives wined and dined their “big” power users on the second anniversary of the terrible Tubbs fire that killed dozens of people in Santa Rosa, not far from where the tone-deaf executives sipped wine.
Judge Alsup demanded to know why those political contributions and shareholder dividends — made well after PG &E was already a convicted felon — were more important to the utility than repairing damaged and deteriorating power lines, and trimming trees from around powerlines, as they are required to do under the Public Resources Code 4293.
So, the Power Company without power, without money, and without the will to do its fundamental job, created one disaster in order to prevent another — by turning off the power for several days for up to two million people in Northern and Central California. Soren Borenstein, Director of the Energy Institute at the University of California, Berkeley’s Haas Business School put it best:
“We have good reason to be skeptical, and the reason is that PG & E bears the costs of starting a fire, but they don’t bear the costs of shutting off power.”
Even if you grant to the now powerless utility that the decision was prudent to prevent fires, they were still poorly prepared to do something as simple as turn the lights out. First, despite days of warning us across all media that the PG & E power outage was coming, the company failed to beef up their own customer service website, which, predictably crashed when scores of worried citizens tried to find out basic information about the power shutdown.
Secondly, rather than anticipate widespread public concern and anxiety over the largest power shutdown in the history of California, PG & E failed to set up local phone banks in each of the communities — like South Napa, where I live — which would suffer the brunt of the outage. Instead, they created two service centers for all of Napa’s 125,000 residents: one up at the Calistoga Fairgrounds at the northern-most part of the county, and the other some 40 miles south at the Vallejo Fairgrounds, which is not even located in Napa County. Why they failed to set up an emergency center at the Napa Fairgrounds in the heart of the City of Napa where 75,000 of the County’s residents live, remains a mystery — especially since it’s the very spot which First Responders used as one of their bases of operations during the devastating fires of 2017.
Third, there was little coordination with local Police or Emergency Service Personnel to handle the traffic chaos certain to ensue when traffic lights, powered by electricity, went dark. On heavily traveled Imola Avenue in South Napa — a major east west connector road — not only were there no operating traffic lights, but there were no police, fire or emergency officials — or even citizen volunteers — to mitigate the damage by directing traffic. Motorists were left on their own, to play a game of chicken at each intersection. Some simple coordination, pre-planning and emergency preparedness with local officials could have prevented traffic chaos.
There are some solutions smoldering right before our very eyes. First, since local and Cal firefighters are on the front-lines of fighting the fires caused by PG &E’s negligence, they ought to be given the financial resources and equipment to do the required “vegetation management” or tree trimming, community by community. PG & E lamely told the federal judge it couldn’t find enough tree-trimmers to do its’ job; I’m sure local fire departments, with help from Cal Fire, would remedy that.
Secondly, with the value of PG & E stock plummeting toward zero, the State of California can seize all of the utility’s transmission lines and assets in the interest of public safety. Having been involved with the public takeover of a bankrupt, for-profit utility in New York State, such direct action becomes a public responsibility when the reliability of electric power to the State’s citizens is threatened. Demanding that the bankrupt utility give a small dollar credit to homeowers or businesses a for lost goods and services — which Governor Newsom did this week — is like putting a tiny Band Aid on Stage Four cancer.
Third, the State — provided Governor Newsom and State Lawmakers are able to look past PG & E’s $4.4 million of campaign contributions to them — can contract-out our regional utilities services to other successful private utility companies — like San Diego Gas & Electric — or create tax incentives for local public jurisdictions — like the town of Healdsburg in Sonoma County, which has its own independent utility company — to make the delivery of electric power into a public service, similar to the provision of water, fire and police protection.
The responsible action for public officials to take is to bring power directly to the people, in the safest, most reliable and most affordable ways. And while the Governor, Attorney General Becerra and members of the State Senate and Assembly are at it, they can help kickstart a special “tree-trimming fund” by giving back the $4.4 million the already-convicted felon/company slipped to them during their campaigns of 2018. After all, that money which we ratepayers paid to PG & E to use for public safety and not for buying political influence, should be used for our protection, not politicians’P elections.
It’s long past time to turn out the lights on PG & E. It should have happened a decade ago, after PG &E’s negligence resulted in nine deaths in the San Bruno gas explosions and the company’s conviction on six felony counts. It should have happened with the hapless utility’s basic operational failures contributing to multiple human fatalities during the fires of 2017, and 2018.
Now, however, they’ve failed at performing the most fundamental function of a power company — providing safe and reliable power to the public. PG & E has literally turned the lights out on itself.