My letter to the editor is built on the foundation of gratitude to not only to first responders who heroically battle Northern California’s catastrophic wildfires, but rank and file PG&E employees bearing the weight of often short-sighted leadership in their dedicated efforts to repair the electrical grid while being unfairly subjected to the anger and resentment of the public caused by decision-making not their own.
Efforts to address what have become Northern California’s chronic annual conflagrations arising from its utility company, PG&E’s, prioritization of how it spends billions in customer and investor revenue, are inextricably tied to material changes in the environment arising from increases in ocean temperatures and what have become extended periods of drought related to the degradation of the ozone layer from global carbon monoxide emissions.
The deadly consequences of these changes in nature are not going away and demand immediate forceful action to eliminate Northern California’s vulnerability to catastrophic wildfires.
The California fire season is 75 days longer than it was four decades ago (California Department of Forestry).
Annual areas burned in California from 1972-2018 quintupled. Average annual temperature is 3 degrees higher, which melts the snowpack earlier, and causes soils to lose moisture and dry up (UCLA).
Eleven million people (one-quarter of California’s population) live in the wild land-urban interface (MIT).
Frontline’s October documentary on the Camp Fire that destroyed the town of Paradise (19,000 structures reduced to ash and more than 80 deaths), took a little more than two-and-one-half hours (KQED).
Sixteen of the 20 worst-performing PG&E high-tension power lines are in high-risk fire areas (WSJ).
There are 1,200 immediate safety risks and 10,000 “less urgent, essential repairs” to PG&E towers, lines, and substations (WSJ).
PG&E blithely estimates that it will take a decade to eliminate power outages while at the same time stating (WSJ, Nov. 6) that “that it is not interested in being converted to a electric and gas cooperative which would transfer ownership from investors to customers.”
(PG&E) is “firmly convinced that a government or customer take-over is not the optimal solution that will address the challenges and serve the long-run interests of its customers. PG&E is focused on resolving wildfire claims and completing the bankruptcy process as quickly as possible to build stronger and safer PG&E.”
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California Governor Newsom has threatened a government take-over of PG&E and some twenty Northern California mayors have called for turning it into energy cooperative. According to the WSJ, “A cooperative would have certain advantages including having more money to invest in its networks because it wouldn’t have to pay federal taxes or shareholder dividends. Disadvantages would include the risk assumed by customers in shouldering financial burdens from all future liabilities from PG&E’s aging electric grid.”
Arguably, PG&E’s historical decision-making accords its investors equal if not more important status than its electrical and gas customers, and it will forcefully resist all efforts to turn it into a cooperative. The probable result is that the actions needed to protect California from PG&E wildfires will remained mired in political turmoil and ensure that they will continue destroying lives, property, local, and state economies.
It is we PG&E customers who ultimately underwrite all costs for the operation of this system, and the time has come to exercise decisive leadership to bring a constructive end to California’s apocalyptic state of electrical power affairs.
Indisputably, the nearly 40 million of us who live in California can share the costs of state bonds to raise half a trillion dollars to underwrite the decisive action necessary to end our vulnerability to catastrophic wildfires, resultant damage to the economy and our civic and personal tranquility, and provide the stability necessary for future growth.
In Northern California, the issuance and sales of state bonds will provide a solid foundation for making PG&E a public corporation whose sole reason for existence—rather than serving shareholders and executives who derive personal financial benefit from decision-making—is to serve and protect its customers.
The prioritization and management of such state bond expenditures must be managed by a Special Master State Board independent of PG&E control of decision-making skewed towards its executives and investors. Included in the mandate of the Special Master State Board is to see that all Northern California’s high-power transmission lines and ancillary connections be buried underground in tunnels that have appropriate access for maintenance and repair. There is no choice in the matter if we want to survive as a state.
We will lose the war with ourselves if we fail to take immediate and decisive forceful action.
John D. Murphy