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Recapping the power shutoff

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DISEMPOWERED Recent power outages raised concerns for PG&E customers and politicians. - BENNETT DUNGAN
  • Bennett Dungan
  • DISEMPOWERED Recent power outages raised concerns for PG&E customers and politicians.

PG&E's move to turn off the lights on close to 700,000 Northern California customers last week was widely labeled as the latest debacle for the nation's largest investor-owned utility.

Grappling with the fallout, local politicians called for increased oversight while activists push for a possible public takeover of the utility.

As if things couldn't get worse, news broke Thursday that a dozen or so PG&E gas executives attended a customer appreciation party for 50 to 60 of the utility's largest gas customers at Silver Oak Winery in Sonoma County on Tuesday, Oct. 8.

Not only did the utility shut off the power the next day; the party was held on the second anniversary of the 2017 North Bay fires.

PG&E's CEO Bill Johnson acknowledged the timing of the gathering was "insensitive, inappropriate [and] tone deaf," according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

In a later statement, PG&E said they had planned the party for about a year and that, "Moving forward, we will no longer hold these types of events."

Even Gov. Gavin Newsom, whose 2018 gubernatorial campaign received $208,400 from PG&E and high-level PG&E employees, criticized the utility for its management of the outages and ongoing management practices.

"They're in bankruptcy due to their terrible management going back decades," Newsom said. "They've created these conditions, it was unnecessary. This can't be the new normal."

The power shutoffs were not only dangerous for drivers and residents with medical needs, they were also expensive.

Michael Wara, director of Stanford University's Climate and Energy Policy program, estimated the power outage cost customers and businesses $2.5 billion. Other experts put the cost lower.

Santa Rosa Mayor Tom Schwedhelm estimates the power outage cost the city $250,000 due to additional staff time and emergency preparedness efforts, according to the Press Democrat.

The Big City

On Thursday, Sonoma County Supervisor Shirlee Zane and other county officials visited PG&E's corporate headquarters in San Francisco. In an interview, Zane called the county's relationship with the utility "rocky," adding that, while she supports the need for limited power shutoffs as a tool to prevent possible wildfires, the recent outage was too broad and done without sufficient input from public agencies.

Zane said that among other requests, the county asked to have a representative in the utility's emergency situation room next time the utility considers a planned power outage.

Another county supervisor, Lynda Hopkins, called for increased investments in infrastructure improvements, such as modern micro grids.

"We have to do more than trim trees," Hopkins told the Press Democrat over the weekend. "We need to be investing in long-term solutions."

Going Public

Some Democratic Party members and San Francisco officials are supportive of a bolder move, long advocated by activists: Purchasing, or seizing, PG&E property through eminent domain—the government's right to take over private property in times of need.

In April, the Sonoma County Democratic Central Committee, a group of representatives from all the county's smaller Democratic clubs, passed a resolution asking the state party to push for a public takeover of PG&E.

Citing fallout from PG&E's ongoing scandals, the resolution proposes that California take over the investor-owned utility and run it as a "non-profit public utility owned by the people."

"California has numerous municipal public utilities including [the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and the Sacramento Municipal Utility District], and Nebraska has statewide public utilities, all of which can be used as models on how to run a nonprofit public utility owned by the people," the resolution states.

Lowell Young, a member of the Mariposa County Democratic Club and a co-author of the resolution, says he's helped push the idea through the state party apparatus for the past year.

"If we're going to bail them out, let's use that money to buy them out instead," Young told the Bohemian.

Other entities within the state party, including the Rural Caucus, the Progressive Caucus, two regional democratic clubs and a handful of county and city clubs around the state, also passed the resolution, according to Young.

Stuck in limbo at the moment, the resolution awaits consideration at a party leadership meeting in March of 2020.

Despite the delay on Young's proposal, a trial run is playing out in San Francisco, while the city attempts to purchase PG&E's infrastructure within city limits.

Last week, the utility rejected San Francisco's offer to purchase the utility's infrastructure within the city for $2.5 billion as part of the utility's bankruptcy deal.

PG&E's CEO Bill Johnson said, in a letter to city officials, that the deal would impact the utility's ratepayers outside of San Francisco, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

"We disagree with the suggestion that PG&E's San Francisco customers would be better served by another entity," Johnson wrote. "Our San Francisco customers—and our customers in the rest of our service territory—rely upon us every day to deliver safe, reliable, affordable and clean power."

San Francisco Mayor London Breed and City Attorney Dennis Herrera defended the city's offer and indicated their continued efforts to buy the utility's infrastructure.

"We would not be leaving PG&E's remaining customers in the lurch," Breed and Herrera wrote in a Chronicle article. "San Francisco is only a small portion of PG&E's service territory. Our city includes some of PG&E's oldest equipment that will require substantial work to remain in service. If we take on that responsibility, PG&E can refocus on the balance of its system."

IBEW 1245, the largest electrical workers union chapter in Northern California, began a campaign opposing San Francisco's proposal, arguing that a takeover could harm workers' compensation and pensions.

Young's proposal calls for "keeping the existing employees of PG&E and installing a new executive management team initially appointed by the governor and the leaders of the state Senate and Assembly."

While getting on the party platform is just a stepping stone for Young's cause—most items added to the state party's platform sit on the party's website without ever becoming law—Young says he and his colleagues are speaking directly to lawmakers about a possible PG&E takeover due to the urgency of the situation.

"The only way we're going to stop [PG&E] is through public ownership," Lowell says, regarding the utility's "negligent" behavior.

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