PG&E must cede power to public

December 9, 2019 — by Viraaj Reddi

On the otherwise-dark night of Oct. 9, the brightly lit student center was packed with students working tirelessly to finish their assignments before it closed at 10 p.m. Afterward, they would return to dark, powerless homes, devoid of electricity or WiFi. 

The reason for this return to 19th century-style conditions, where candles lit rooms and food couldn’t be stored beyond a few days, was the Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E)’s decision to shut down power for over half a million customers in Northern California in an effort to prevent wildfires. 

PG&E suffered swift public condemnation following the blackouts, and their ongoing blunders show that they are incapable of properly managing California’s energy. Because of their rampant irresponsibility, PG&E must be taken out of the hands of private investors and placed into the hands of the public. This can happen by ceding the company to government control. 

Even before the fires, PG&E was subject to controversy: in the 2010 San Bruno pipeline blast, a PG&E pipeline exploded and killed eight people due to improper installation. However, PG&E’s irresponsibility has worsened in recent years, most notably resulting in wildfires. Their solution? Blackouts for many of their customers, which they estimate will continue for the next decade.

According to the Wall Street Journal, PG&E knew for years that the power lines risked sparking fires, yet neglected keeping up maintenance and upgrading the lines to prevent fires. 

As expected, PG&E denied these claims. However, they admitted to making plans to replace 60 line towers due to safety regulations but never carrying through. 

PG&E went bankrupt following the 2018 Camp Fire in Butte County, California, and reached a settlement of $13.5 billion on Dec. 6 with victims of the wildfires. Customers believed that such a tragic event would end PG&E’s neglect of their power lines. 

But because of poor management and laziness, that wasn’t the end. This year, they finally chose to go through with the necessary repairs and begin safety-proofing their power lines. 

But it wasn’t the specialized repairs that should have been periodically occurring throughout the year. Instead, PG&E decided to shut off all power to half a million customers, leaving many in pitch black darkness while power lines were proofed. 

PG&E has a monopoly over the northern two-thirds of California. This pattern can’t keep continuing every year, where millions rely on a company that annually fails at their job. 

Government control of the company would solve much of PG&E’s current issues; it adds transparency, allows the public a voice in their own energy crises, potentially decreases costs by turning PG&E into a nonprofit and takes the reins from an incompetent organization. The problem with the current system is the middleman investors and executives who prioritize profit above responsibility, leading to many of PG&E’s poor decisions. 

The Wall Street Journal found PG&E paid $5 billion to their investors at the same time they knew of the line maintenance problems. Federal judge William Aslup ordered PG&E to respond to the story, questioning why they deemed political contributions more important than fixing their aging power equipment. 

In addition, several cities such as San Francisco have already attempted to buy parts of PG&E’s grid. Shifting control to the government would streamline the entire process, allowing cities to have some semblance of control over their own systems. 

Considering these factors, deprivatizing PG&E wouldn’t be a seismic shift; the only change would be removing the problematic executives and investors from the equation. 

PG&E’s irresponsibility can’t continue severely debilitating the lives of millions of Americans. To truly secure the future of energy in California, PG&E needs to cede their control to government and leave the public in charge. 

 

 

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At UC Berkeley, PhD student Abrar Abidi and research assistant Yvonne Hao have embarked on a goal of creating hand sanitizer for the Bay Area's most vulnerable populations, including the homeless and the incarcerated. Their hand sanitizer includes glycerol mixed with other products, in accordance with a formula from the World Health Organization. So far, they are producing 120 hundreds of gallons of sanitizer each week. Photo courtesy of Roxanne Makasdjian with UC Berkeley.

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