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Letters: Power to the people

The Pacific Gas & Electric Company destroyed Paradise. The deadliest wildfire in California history was caused by corporate greed. Eighty-five Californians lost their lives in November of 2018. Thousands of buildings were burned to the ground. Billions of dollars in damages have been calculated. It’s called the Camp Fire. The town of Paradise was obliterated. PG&E, an investor-owned for-profit corporation, admitted in criminal court that it was responsible. Instead of spending its resources to maintain power equipment it diverted money to shareholder dividends and employee bonuses.

What happened thereafter? It’s been business as usual for the monopoly. The company filed bankruptcy again (previously in 2001 (Enron)). It did not have the money to pay for the harm that it had caused. However, during that bankruptcy, and with no shame, it asked for permission to pay out millions of dollars to employees as bonuses. PG&E reached a settlement with victims of the Camp Fire tragedy but as of early 2022 many have not been compensated. That’s not unusual for the company. It has taken decades to clean up its toxic dumping near Hinkley, California (Erin Brockovich) that the company first denied existed.

The corporation was ordered to pay a $3.5 million fine because of its criminal conduct related to the Camp Fire tragedy. If it had been a person (I thought SCOTUS said that corporations were persons?), it would have been sentenced to ninety years in prison. The judge found that PG&E had a history of falsifying inspection records. He was not the first to do so. The company predicts rolling blackouts will continue for at least a decade. The cost to fix its neglected equipment maintenance backlogs is in the billions of dollars.

As PG&E was leaving felony probation recently in another case (San Bruno gas explosion), the judge supervising that probation said that PG&E was a convicted felon that had learned nothing, failed to voluntarily own up to its crimes, and remained a “continuing menace” to California: “While on probation, PG&E has set at least 31 wildfires, burned nearly one and one-half million acres, burned 23,956 structures, and killed 113 Californians.”

Adding insult to injury, we, as taxpayers are picking up the costs of PG&E’s greed on the front end and on the back end. State law guarantees the utility a specific return of 8 to 10 percent on its equity. As ratepayers we have paid 80% higher rates than the national average. Its 2017 profit was $1.67 billion. We, as taxpayers pay millions of dollars to put out PG&E caused fires. As PG&E came out of bankruptcy recently it asked the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) for authority to raise its rates, again, citing obligations to pay for the damages it’s greed and criminal negligence repeatedly causes. The CPUC has earned a reputation for giving California utilities most of what they want. (The CPUC unanimously waived the $200 million fine imposed by a federal judge after PG&E killed eight Californians in the San Bruno gas explosion.) California taxpayers have also historically paid additional millions of dollars to bailout PG&E.

PG&E argues in favor of its nearly annual requests for more and more taxpayer and ratepayer monies saying that its fixed costs (dams, power plants, power lines, etc.) are extremely high. One would expect that to be true when the company diverts monies from upgrading old equipment to upgrading its current financial portfolio.

PG&E is presently asking the CPUC to reduce the rates it must pay property owners who generate electricity through solar panels. The request also includes an additional monthly fee, a solar tax, to be assessed solar power producers (such as my wife and me). Then why should we buy solar panels? How does this help California’s green policies? This is the company whose CEO has a base salary of $2.5 million per year with incentives of more than $100 million.

What do we do about this state-supported, greedy, serial killer?

Some suggest that California should just buy the company. It would be expensive but doable. Since the company is publicly traded, its assets and their values are publicly reported. Most of Nebraska is served by a state-owned power company. Unfortunately, when you buy a neglected company, you must also burn billions of dollars to upgrade the company’s assets. The reply to that is that we already are paying for it in lives, property and taxpayer bailouts so why not put those monies to better use? But it would be appropriate to consider California’s history of poorly managing the EDD and high-speed rail.

We could buy it and convert it to a co-op, much like credit unions or rural power companies. That would eliminate large payments to management employees and outside investors. The state would still have to maintain and upgrade what the company has allowed to deteriorate.

Others suggest creating a public entity board that over sees the CPUC and PG&E. Members from the public with the education, training, and expertise to supervise the utility in the public interest would do so. The goal of the public board would be to put people before profit. And if that lowered the value of the company, then so be it. PG&E would be cheaper to buy. That’s hardball public interest capitalism with a delicious hint of socialism! Ultimately, we would hope to see lower rates, fewer dead bodies, and power to the people.

— Charles A. Wieland,



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