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Vantage Point: Let’s skip October next year

Vantage Point: Let’s skip October next year

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T.S. Eliot was wrong. For us in Napa, October is the “cruelest month,” not April. October is the month for massive wildfires and earthquakes. A few weeks ago, San Francisco commemorated the 30th anniversary of the Loma Prieta earthquake. I remember that evening back East, having just turned on the World Series coverage. The previous year I had committed to a long-range plan to move to St. Helena; I then had to ask myself whether that would be a smart move.

We’ve had the Tubbs Fire two years ago and now the Kincade. The other day, I was chatting with a bright-eyed and resilient woman at Rianda House. Her family has farmed in Knights Valley for six decades and after suffering fire damage in 2017, now their homes was totally destroyed. But she smiled and said that unlike two years ago, this time none of her cows had died. People here – and their animals – are strong.

Given the impracticality of virtually all the plans to reform or revolutionize PG&E, it may make sense just to abolish October. That could cause actuarial and agricultural turbulence, however. Vintners might have to pick their grapes either early, in September, or late, in November. But if our grapegrowers and winemakers have demonstrated anything in recent years, it’s that they are both adaptable and innovative.

For better or worse, however, we are without the powers of emperors, who long ago gave us the Julian and Gregorian calendars. Alas, we seem to be stuck with October. Starting on Oct. 9, we’ve had five PSPS outages. Most of St. Helena suffered just the first. In the succeeding outages, it was slivers of our town on the eastern and western edges that lost power. But to those who did, it must have been doubling infuriating to have lost power when neighbors a few houses away still had homes brightly lit.

Regrettably, none of the utility proposals proclaimed so far make practical sense. The proverbial devil is in the details and dollars. Just last week San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo, in a guest column in the Register, forcefully argued in favor of one policy alternative – to turn PG&E into “a customer-owned cooperative.”

One advantage of a utility coop would be that it wouldn’t pay investor dividends nor federal taxes, thus leaving that much more money to rebuild the utility’s infrastructure. But this proposal collapses on one key point: where will the billions of dollars to buy a post-bankruptcy PG&E come from? California is not Putin’s Russia, where the government can effectively steal natural resource companies for just a few rubles.

Similarly, the idea that San Francisco would carve out its own utility won’t work. Right now, the City by the Bay cannot keep its streets clean or safe; why would anyone think that metropolis would have the ability to run power generation and distribution? The workers who actually deliver what PG&E produces, the members of the IBEW union, are strongly against a SF takeover. Moreover, if big cities separate from PG&E, where would that leave the under-populated but geographically vast rural areas? They could never afford to own their own utilities.

The dilemma is that the current PG&E is the product of more than simply corporate mismanagement. It’s the result of our politics. Under political guidance, the utility “has signed some expensive contracts for clean energy” (The Economist). It’s estimated that we could save almost $1.5 billion by abandoning those contracts. But good luck getting political approval for that.

Political leadership is key if we’re ever able to untangle the Gordian knot that is PG&E. Our high-intensity technicolor governor, Gavin Newsom, has so far vastly outperformed in the rhetoric game his hapless predecessor Gray Davis in a previous power crisis. Davis was so inert and unimpressive he got the political nickname “Beige” and lost a recall to a colorful southern California actor.

Newsom has been outspoken in denouncing PG&E. That’s at least curious given the huge campaign contributions he has accepted from that utility, the largest corporate political donor in the state. Talk is cheap in the realm of political dollars if it doesn’t result in action.

But what action is possible? The Wall Street Journal’s iconoclastic business columnist Holman Jenkins reminds us that “California’s utilities cannot financially withstand the obligation imposed on them to subsidize development in fire-prone areas.”

So what can be done? It might be feasible to carve out gas from electric and in that way begin to cut PG&E down in size. A proactive CPUC (our state utility commission) could create management standards that PG&E executives must meet or lose their million dollar salaries. We could thin our fire-prone forests and restrict nearby housing development.

But there’s no quick solution. The only short-term action that may be beneficial is to take that $100 credit PG&E gave many of us in our November bills and buy some good booze, which can warm us on the dark nights that may lay ahead, whatever calendar month we’re in.

Mark G. Epstein moved to St. Helena from the East Coast early this century after a career in international business.

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