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Thomas D. Elias: Time to think seriously about breaking up utilities

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The most annoying part of living in the myriad potential wildfire areas around California lately has been a series of public safety power shutdowns imposed by companies like Pacific Gas & Electric, Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric.

The stoppages, sometimes lasting as long as three days, are plain acknowledgments from the companies that their equipment and their maintenance practices are unsafe, inadequate to protect individuals from harm and possible death. This renders service provided by the companies unreliable.

Yet, no one seriously threatens the survival or monopolies of these companies, which admit they’ve killed upwards of 100 persons over the last three years, while not one of their executives has served a single minute in jail for their destructive decisions.

The bulk of the admitted deaths came in the 2018 Camp Fire which incinerated the city of Paradise in Butte County. PG&E pleaded guilty this year to manslaughter charges for 85 deaths. There could have been more such guilty pleas in other places, but no district attorney outside Butte County has brought criminal charges against any of the utilities or their executives.

Yes, there have been penalties. Most famously, PG&E went through bankruptcy and paid billions of dollars in cash and stock to a trust representing many of its victims. The company’s board of directors was cashiered and replaced. But some top executives escaped with gold parachutes worth millions of dollars to go along with their guilty consciences.

Now come two further authoritative condemnations of the companies, especially PG&E. In one, the ratepayer advocacy division of the state Public Utilities Commission recommended fining the company $167 million for its poor communication with customers about impending shutdowns aimed at preventing new fires.

Said one division lawyer, “When a utility fails to provide hospitals, fire departments and people with medical conditions with adequate warning of its decision to execute a shutoff, it is endangering lives.”

This doesn’t appear to bother PG&E, according to the Chicago-based law firm monitoring the company’s legally required attempts to make power lines and transformers safer. The monitor’s report noted that PG&E’s safety effort has been worse in 2020 than before.

“The monitor team has not seen a meaningful improvement in the quality of work (on vegetation trimming),” said the report from the Kirkland & Ellis law firm. “On a per-mile basis, (we are) finding more missed trees in 2020 than (in) 2019.”

So PG&E is not only failing to tell key customers far enough in advance when power cutoffs are coming, but it also has not notably increased safety, despite all its at-fault fires of the last four years.

There is no such monitor for Edison or SDG&E, but Edison admitted its power lines likely caused two large October blazes in Orange County.

All of which leads some to believe it’s high time Gov. Gavin Newsom activates a law known as SB 350, which he signed June 30, authorizing the state to take over and/or force the selloff of parts of utility companies failing to discharge their duties.

These companies have done precisely that. They cut off power when it suits them. They do not compensate victims of those shutoffs, customers sometimes paying for electricity they never get.

So far, Newsom does not take seriously the notion of breaking up any utility, even PG&E. When this question arose during an October news conference, Newsom claimed PSPS notifications are improved. “It’s a different day,” he said. “But we do have the ability to take (PG&E) over. We now have oversight and safety committees.”

He did not respond to the questions of why utilities should be allowed to keep deciding how and when to warn customers and when to do shutoffs. Nor did he respond to one customer who complained that “Every time I pay my electric bill, I feel like I’m helping a murderer.”

Others are ready and waiting to take over parts of PG&E. The many relatively new publicly-owned community choice aggregation outfits around the state, for example, would love to take over power lines they now must rent.

It’s time Newsom took this seriously. If he does not, he can expect his inaction to be used against him when he seeks reelection in 2022.

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Thomas D. Elias writes the syndicated California Focus column. He is author of the book, “The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It.”

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