Two major wildfires that raged in California for the past ten days are finally contained. But the debate and aftermath will rage for months.
California’s Governor Gavin Newsom is calling for a public sector takeover of bankruptcy-mired Pacific Gas and Electric Co. (PG&E). But why should the state take over the ailing and corrupt system when it could make a fresh start, installing solar and wind power in every street?
Over 30% of all electricity is lost in the transmission system, so switching to local, green power would actually save money and also help the environment. Californian legislators had made halting attempts to install green power infrastructure but it was always a low priority.
Gov Newsom and his allies took $208,400 in donations from PG&E during his run for governor before the public utility began controlled blackouts. PG&E gave the governor the maximum amount of $58,400 and gave another $150,000 to a political spending group supporting his candidacy.
The donations were revealed during a seven-month investigation by California’s ABC affiliate, whose probe was part of a documentary series breaking down California’s 2018 wildfire crisis. ABC10 published its findings in July.
PG&E also donated more than $800,000 directly to candidate campaigns, and another $3 million to political groups, most of which ultimately plowed that money back into candidate’s war chests, according to ABC10’s investigation.
Newsom refused to answer questions in July when reporters asked about the donations. “It’s a strange question,” he told ABC10. “I don’t know what more I can say.”
PG&E alone has some 81,000 miles of overhead lines. But forget burying the cables – there is no need these days when local renewable power supplies can be built at a lower cost. Undergrounding makes damaged lines hard to access, and leaves them vulnerable to floods and earthquakes. They’re just one source of risk among many. And it’s reallllly expensive. PG&E puts the price at about $2.3 million a mile.
PG&E has been prioritising profits over safety for years, or decades. Its own guidelines put one deadly Tower (27/222) a quarter-century beyond its useful life — but the tower remained, according to the New York Times in March 2019. Beyond wildfires, PG&E has a broader history of safety problems. A 2010 explosion of a PG&E gas pipeline killed eight people.
A jury found PG&E guilty of five counts of willfully breaking federal gas pipeline safety laws and one count of obstructing the federal investigation into the disaster.
Since being sentenced in January 2017, state investigators say PG&E sparked wildfires that killed 107 people — including the deadly 2018 Camp Fire, which killed 85 people when it destroyed the entire town of Paradise.
The massive Kincade wildfire in northern California burned nearly 78,000 acres — more than double the size of San Francisco. The Kincade Fire forced more than 180,000 residents out of their homes. The cause of the wine country blaze is offically unknown, but the flames broke out at 9:27 p.m. local time on Oct. 23, and PG&E told state regulators that part of a transmission tower in the area broke before the fire began.
A million homes were without power at its height, but its not enough to conclude that the electrical grid failures were caused by poor maintenance. The chaos and tragedy was caused by the dangerous and inefficient grid system, which has been an accident waiting to happen for decades.
Firefighters continued to make headway over the weekend, thanks to lighter winds. As of Sunday, evacuation orders had been lifted and displaced residents were allowed to return home. But power has not been restored.
Energy Czar — too little too late
Gov.Newsom named Ana Matosantos to be energy czar along with her ongoing responsibilities as cabinet secretary. He also called for a complete overhaul of PG&E within the current Chapter 11 bankruptcy system, in which the state would take an unprecedented role and ensure that the San Francisco-based utility’s “overly broad application” of public safety power shutoffs (PSPS) never is repeated.
To expedite PG&E’s bankruptcy exit, and perhaps its public takeover, Newsom said that he will convene a meeting in Sacramento this week with executives and shareholders of the utility, wildfire victims and PG&E’s major creditors. Newsome aims to “accelerate a consensual resolution to the bankruptcy cases that create a new entity, and one that better represents our California values and one that will advance massive safety transformations beginning before the next fire season.”
If parties fail to reach an agreement quickly, Newsom said, “the state will not hesitate to step in and restructure the utility.”
PG&E’s got billions in legal claims to pay off, which is why the state gave it permission to raise its electricity rates, though they are already some of the highest in the U.S.
Like most regulated monopolies that are protected for decades by government from competition, PG&E is a poorly run, inefficient and antiquated company that charges customers higher and higher prices and provides lousier and lousier service.
The company had been encouraged by the Democrats who run this one-party state to do too little for environmental improvements. Instead of, say, localising the power infrastructure so they could retire old towers, the company never spent enough on solar panels and other forms of green energy.
Newsom’s newly named energy czar, along with several state energy, legal, environmental and legislative experts, will begin to “game out every option and prepare a plan should the state need to intervene.” Newsom said “all options are on the table.” Does that include switching to 100% renewables and locally controlled power supply? Probably not.
Newsom said the state’s latest performance was a “world leading” response in wildfire prevention and protection. At the same time, he chastised PG&E, which he said had displayed “cultural ineptitude, a behemoth that was slow to act and resistant to change.”
PG&E spokesperson James Noonan said PG&E shares the same goals as the state, and the giant utility “must play a role” in achieving them. “We want to fairly resolve the wildfire claims and exit Chapter 11 as quickly as possible,” he said.
Last Thursday, the bulk of PG&E’s latest planned power shutoffs ended as nearly all of the 1.1 million customers shutoff during Oct. 26-29 had been restored. The utility found at least 156 instances of weather-related damages to its facilities during the preventive shutoff,
In Southern California, meanwhile, the Maria Fire is nearly fully contained. The fire erupted suddenly Thursday evening and quickly burned more than 9,400 acres.
Officials are investigating the cause of the Maria Fire. The utility company Southern California Edison said it reenergized a power line near the area of the fire shortly before it started in Ventura County. The utility found at least 156 instances of weather-related damages to its facilities during the preventive shutoff, and said it is verifying hundreds more that will be part of a report to the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) in the next 10 days.
In a report to the CPUC on Thursday, SCE said that the Maria Fire began 13 minutes after the utility had re-energized a 16kV transmission power line south of Santa Paula. The power line had earlier been de-energized as part of a PSPS. SCE said that it had no information on the cause of the fire.
Throughout October, residents in broad swaths of California experienced planned power shutoffs intended to prevent wildfires. The first round of blackouts was in Northern California, but PG&E was criticized for inaccurate outage maps and inaccessible call centers. Hundreds of thousands of customers lost power in blackouts that started Oct. 22 — a day before the Kincade Fire — and included Sonoma County.
California must take back its power
A columnist on Truthdig wrote: “We Californians are watching our state burn. Our houses are literally on fire, and yet we should not be surprised. Our current “new normal” is an utterly predictable consequence of global warming. While the climate crisis fueling our wildfires is the direct result of the fossil fuel industry’s profit-driven corporate greed, another culprit, one that has for years valued moneyed interests over human needs, is also to blame: the nation’s largest utilities company, Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E).”