Hundreds of Thousands Are Without Power Thanks to PG&E. This Shows Why We Need Public Ownership.

The utility giant’s mass blackouts in California are just the tip of the iceberg.

Brooke Anderson October 10, 2019

Climate justice protestors interrupt a November 29, 2018 meeting of the California Public Utilities Commission in San Francisco, California to oppose a public bailout of PG&E and call for public ownership of the utility instead. (Photo: Brooke Anderson)

Start­ing Octo­ber 9, Pacif­ic Gas & Elec­tric (PG&E), California’s largest pow­er util­i­ty, has been inflict­ing rolling shut­offs of ser­vice to an esti­mat­ed 800,000 cus­tomer accounts, in ongo­ing black­outs that could leave 2 mil­lion peo­ple with­out elec­tric­i­ty in North­ern and Cen­tral Cal­i­for­nia. The investor-owned util­i­ty said that the shut­off was intend­ed to pre­vent wild­fires dur­ing high-wind con­di­tions and could last sev­er­al days. As food rots in fridges and res­i­dents are unsure of how to charge their elec­tric wheel­chairs, the black­outs have inten­si­fied calls for a pub­lic takeover of the for-prof­it utility.

Public ownership puts the decisions about what kind of energy we use, how it is distributed, in the hands of communities—not corporations.

Pub­lic anger is exac­er­bat­ed by the util­i­ty giant’s admit­ted role in help­ing unleash the largest wild­fires in state his­to­ry. For years, PG&E repeat­ed­ly spent funds ear­marked for safe­ty upgrades on its high-volt­age trans­mis­sion line on hefty rais­es and bonus­es for exec­u­tives instead, leav­ing dan­ger­ous­ly dete­ri­o­rat­ed pow­er lines through­out the state. The fact that PG&E deferred crit­i­cal infra­struc­ture main­te­nance, com­bined with increas­ing cli­mate-relat­ed drought and dis­eased forests, helped cause California’s dead­liest wild­fire in his­to­ry, the 2018 Camp Fire that killed 86 peo­ple. In Feb­ru­ary, PG&E stat­ed, the com­pa­ny believes it is prob­a­ble that its equip­ment will be deter­mined to be an igni­tion point of the 2018 Camp fire.”

PG&E is fac­ing $30 bil­lion in lia­bil­i­ty for its alleged role in that and oth­er recent wild­fires. Despite all this, PG&E still hasn’t done the nec­es­sary line main­te­nance to pre­vent anoth­er wild­fire. The util­i­ty has only com­plet­ed one third of the tree-trim­ming work it com­mit­ted to do this year. Instead, it’s shut­ting off essen­tial services.

Though PG&E had pro­ject­ed for almost a year that it would need to shut off pow­er dur­ing high wind events in order to pre­vent fires that have result­ed from downed pow­er lines, the util­i­ty giant had done shock­ing­ly lit­tle plan­ning. The only source of infor­ma­tion, PG&E’s own web­site, went down almost imme­di­ate­ly. Only one emer­gency resource cen­ter with charg­ing sta­tions was estab­lished per coun­ty, and clos­es at night. PG&E wait­ed until the last minute — just a day before the shut­down — to pub­licly announce its plan to keep open one of the area’s largest high­ways, the Calde­cott Tunnel.

Class cleav­ages

As res­i­dents nav­i­gate the new nor­mal” of increas­ing­ly pow­er­ful wild­fires and pre­emp­tive pow­er out­ages, sharp class divides are exposed. When this week’s pow­er shut­off was announced, some res­i­dents stocked up on expen­sive per­son­al gen­er­a­tors while oth­ers anguished over los­ing a week’s worth of pre­cious food if refrig­er­a­tors failed. Lead­ing up to the shut­off, many peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties feared they would be unable to pow­er their breath­ing machines, recharge elec­tric wheel­chairs, refrig­er­ate insulin, or even leave their apart­ments with­out ele­va­tor ser­vice, and were orga­niz­ing mutu­al aid net­works to pro­vide resources and support. 

As the shut­off unfolds, it’s becom­ing increas­ing­ly evi­dent that not all com­mu­ni­ties have equal access to the resources nec­es­sary to care for them­selves and their fam­i­lies through the black­out. As peo­ple see the impend­ing apoc­a­lypse around us, it becomes clear­er that if we can’t read­i­ly access the resources for our safe­ty and sur­vival, then we have turned the cor­ner to eco-apartheid,” Michelle Mas­caren­has-Swan, a col­lec­tive mem­ber of Move­ment Gen­er­a­tion Jus­tice and Ecol­o­gy Project, a social move­ment orga­ni­za­tion. (Dis­clo­sure: This author con­sults for Move­ment Gen­er­a­tion.) That’s what eco-apartheid is: shut­ting down access to resource for some, while oth­ers have free reign over those resources.”

The wild­fires and pow­er out­ages are shocks that change the pub­lic dis­course from, This is just how it is’ to, Wait, why I am putting my safe­ty in their hands?’” con­tin­ued Mas­caren­has-Swan. Those ques­tions open up the pos­si­bil­i­ty for more rad­i­cal shifts. It isn’t tin­ker­ing around the edges of the cur­rent sys­tem, but trans­form­ing it.” 

Calls for pub­lic ownership

Faced with law­suits for dam­ages of upwards of $30 bil­lion relat­ed to their role in the wild­fires and oth­er acci­dents, PG&E filed for bank­rupt­cy ear­li­er this year. Cal­i­for­nia leg­is­la­tors have been con­sid­er­ing var­i­ous bills that could put ratepay­ers on the hook for PG&E’s past and future wild­fire lia­bil­i­ty, prompt­ing many in the state to ask What if we just owned PG&E?”

As bailout con­ver­sa­tions swirled in Sacra­men­to ear­li­er this year, a No PG&E Bailout” Coali­tion emerged, demand­ing a pub­lic takeover of the monop­oly utility’s elec­tric­i­ty grid infra­struc­ture.” The for­ma­tion is call­ing for joint pub­lic-work­er own­er­ship, a tran­si­tion to a pub­lic, democ­ra­tized clean ener­gy mod­el that sup­ports local Com­mu­ni­ty Choice ener­gy pro­grams,” and a tran­si­tion for exist­ing work­ers’ jobs and pensions. 

Mod­els for pub­lic util­i­ty own­er­ship already exist in Cal­i­for­nia. The Los Ange­les Depart­ment of Water and Pow­er and the Sacra­men­to Munic­i­pal Util­i­ty Dis­trict are both pub­licly owned. 

Mari Rose Taruc is the coor­di­na­tor of the Util­i­ty Jus­tice Cam­paign at the Local Clean Ener­gy Alliance (LCEA), which is a mem­ber of the No PG&E Bailout Coali­tion. For her, the cri­sis is per­son­al. Her dad, which lives in the PG&E shut­off zone, uses dial­y­sis, and she wor­ries for his health if the elec­tric­i­ty is shut off. 

Our util­i­ty sys­tem has to be more nim­ble as the cli­mate cri­sis unfolds,” Taruc tells In These Times. The con­ver­sa­tion shouldn’t just be about mak­ing the trans­mis­sion lines work bet­ter. What if we imag­ined a decen­tral­ized ener­gy sys­tem where we don’t need trans­mis­sion lines that catch fire?”

Taruc’s point is not just that PG&E needs to be pub­licly owned, but also decen­tral­ized and based on dis­trib­uted local pow­er gen­er­a­tion. PG&E’s sys­tem of mas­sive cen­tral coal and gas plants that rely on pow­er lines to move ener­gy across vast swaths of land is both expen­sive to main­tain and dan­ger­ous dur­ing fire sea­son. Instead, we need to move toward local­ly-gen­er­at­ed solar, wind, and oth­er renew­able energy. 

While Taruc has been focused on util­i­ty jus­tice at the statewide lev­el, the LCEA of which she is part has spent years build­ing mod­els for exact­ly that kind of decen­tral­ized ener­gy gen­er­a­tion through com­mu­ni­ty choice ener­gy. Such pro­grams allow cities and coun­ties to choose where their ener­gy will come from, either by pur­chas­ing renew­able ener­gy on the mar­ket or devel­op­ing their own local renew­able ener­gy ener­gy resources. Under the mod­el, incum­bent util­i­ty com­pa­nies such as PG&E con­tin­ue to deliv­er the ener­gy and ser­vice cus­tomers. As a result of LCEA’s advo­ca­cy, East Bay Com­mu­ni­ty Ener­gy, a local clean ener­gy sup­pli­er, was estab­lished in 2017 and is mov­ing on a ground­break­ing plan for solar, wind, and ener­gy effi­cien­cy devel­op­ment in the East Bay. 

Pub­lic own­er­ship puts the deci­sions about what kind of ener­gy we use, how it is dis­trib­uted, in the hands of com­mu­ni­ties — not cor­po­ra­tions. This shift allows com­mu­ni­ties to pri­or­i­tize social and eco­log­i­cal well­be­ing over pol­lu­tion and prof­it — and can be a means of address­ing the cli­mate crisis.

The post-dis­as­ter effort to piv­ot from cor­po­rate-owned, vul­ner­a­ble, cen­tral­ized ener­gy sys­tems to dis­as­ter-resilient and local­ly gov­erned renew­able ener­gy is not unique to Cal­i­for­nia. In Puer­to Rico, thou­sands of peo­ple were with­out pow­er for months when the import and dis­tri­b­u­tion of fos­sil fuels on the island was halt­ed by dam­age from Hur­ri­cane María, and trans­mis­sion lines and the pow­er grid were dam­aged. Casa Pueblo in Adjun­tas, became a solar oasis” dur­ing the hur­ri­cane, dis­trib­ut­ing 14,000 solar lanterns and is now build­ing ener­gy sov­er­eign­ty at the local lev­el by cre­at­ing the island’s first com­mu­ni­ty-con­trolled solar microgrid. 

We’re call­ing for an ener­gy insur­rec­tion,” said Arturo Mas­sol-Deyá when I vis­it­ed Casa Pueblo in June. We’re not going to wait for the gov­ern­ment. We’re going to unplug ourselves.” 

As munic­i­pal­i­ties around the world nav­i­gate accel­er­at­ing eco­log­i­cal col­lapse, the ques­tion is not just how do we tran­si­tion from fos­sil fuel extrac­tion to renew­able ener­gy, but rather: Who owns and gov­erns col­lec­tive resources — like water and ener­gy — that we need to sur­vive? Will it be large cor­po­ra­tions like PG&E, bent on max­i­miz­ing prof­it, or local com­mu­ni­ties with demo­c­ra­t­ic control?

Brooke Ander­son is an Oak­land, Cal­i­for­nia-based orga­niz­er and pho­to­jour­nal­ist. She has spent 20 years build­ing move­ments for social, eco­nom­ic, racial and eco­log­i­cal jus­tice. She is a proud union mem­ber of the Pacif­ic Media Work­ers Guild, CWA 39521, AFL-CIO.
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