Back in the good old pre-2017 days when many Californians paid little or no attention to the approximately dollar-a-month maintenance charge on their electric bills, most customers figured their money was being spent to assure reliable power.
Actually, much of the maintenance money collected over six decades by big utilities like Pacific Gas & Electric Co., Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric was instead going to executive bonuses and other items never authorized by state regulators.
That happened, said the California Public Utilities Commission at the time, because it had too little manpower to fully inspect the books of those companies, let along examine their thousands of miles of overhead wires.
To call the spate of decisions and settlements on PG&E of the last month or so any kind of punishment is a bad joke, columnist Tom Elias says.
Things changed after the spate of massive wildfires that began in the fall of 2017, when state inspectors began fingering utility company lines as the ignition points of more and more blazes.
Much of that would likely not have happened if maintenance money had been spent properly.
Now, with PG&E in bankruptcy court and Edison only one or two wildfires away from a similar fate, comes a remarkable report indicating more than anything before just how much the maintenance money paid by consumers could have accomplished if it had been properly spent.
That document came from the felonious PG&E, answering questions from U.S. District Judge William Alsup on its equipment inspections before and during the power shutoffs the big company inflicted on millions of customers last fall.
Meanwhile, state legislators on Feb. 19 will consider for the first time investigating whether the PUC is capable of regulating the utilities’ safety efforts. “Government incompetence is part of the story,” said Democratic Assemblyman Adam Gray of Merced.
It might have been Gov. Gavin Newsom’s best move yet, both politically and on its merits: Disapproving the ballyhooed $13.5 billion settlement Pacific Gas & Electric Co. reached in mid-December with lawyers for tens of thousands of homeowners and businesses burned out in fires at least partially caused by PG&E equipment over the last three years.
PG&E, America’s largest privately-owned utility, intentionally cut off power three times in October alone when it became concerned that dry and windy conditions might combine with its flawed equipment to start even more fires.
Sure enough, there are strong indications that despite even those blackouts, a PG&E transmission tower may have started the massive Kincade Fire in the North Bay.
On that revealing PG&E report: Company inspectors found at least 218 maintenance-related problems that could have started fires if equipment involved had been live at the times of the risky conditions spurring shutoffs. There were cases of rusted bolts that could have snapped in high winds and many cases of likely vegetation damage, to name only two.
These items amount to an admission that even during the worst crisis in its history, PG&E could not maintain its equipment safely. They also raise major questions that Alsup – supervising probation of PG&E after its negligence conviction for damages during the San Bruno gas pipeline disaster of 2010 – should be asking.
One is whether proper use of maintenance money that was misspent in the past could have prevented any of the recent major fires.
Another is the matter of who authorized misuse of that money and what penalties should be assessed against them. So far, no person has suffered any criminal penalty for any utility action, not even for PG&E’s role in the deaths of at least eight persons in San Bruno.
The blackouts, especially their extremely wide range in Northern California, could eventually cause political problems for Newsom. He’s tried to head this off by disapproving PG&E’s proposed $13.5 billion settlement with fire victims.
A third question is whether other California utilities similarly neglected their own maintenance responsibilities. For sure, Edison equipment likely played major roles in several big fires that have caused almost as much damage as those at least partly inflicted by PG&E gear.
And what about SDG&E, which originated the power shutoffs in 2018 to prevent more corporate financial disasters like the hundreds of millions of dollars in damages it was assessed after the 2007 Witch Fire in the suburbs of San Diego?
All these questions must be resolved before the fate of PG&E can possibly be decided fairly in bankruptcy court, where proposed plans for the company’s future range from Wall Street or government bailouts to breaking off and selling portions of the company to simply making it and all the other investor owned utilities in the state into a single large state-owned firm.
If the outcome is fair to both customers and shareholders, the PG&E equipment report might emerge as a historic document reshaping and making safer future energy supplies in all of California.
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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