Fire Power

PG&E and the California wildfire crisis

by Ricardo Gomez

Illustration by Sophia Meng

published November 1, 2019

Images of firestorms, burning hills, and charred neighborhoods in California are becoming the horrid icons of the future’s climate. The state’s ongoing struggle with devastating wildfires sharply evinces the severe realities of the global climate crisis. According to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire), California’s 2018 wildfire season saw nearly 1.9 million acres of land burned—a total that would have charred the entirety of Rhode Island two times over.

While the combination of extremely dry land produced by rainless summers and hot autumn winds are what set the conditions for fast-moving wildfires, the sparks that start them are often man-made. The Camp Fire, which destroyed nearly 14,000 homes and took 86 lives in Paradise, CA, was 2018’s costliest natural disaster and was rigorously investigated by Cal Fire. Disturbingly, the cause was traced back to electrical transmission lines owned and operated by Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E), the state’s largest for-profit utility company, which finds itself at the center of many ongoing crises.

At the time of writing, the Kincade fire in Northern California has burned 76,825 acres and destroyed nearly 206 structures. Local authorities have ordered the evacuation of 180,000 people and Governor Gavin Newsom has declared a state of emergency. The blaze is fueled by 80 mph winds and is still only 30 percent contained. Meanwhile, in Southern California, a fire now called the Easy fire erupted this Wednesday, adding to the chaos centered around the Getty fire not too far away. Throughout the state’s valleys, autumn's orange hues are brought not by the changing of the leaves, but by landscapes of wildfire that are orange only until they disintegrate into grim grays of ash.

Already, PG&E is investigating whether or not their equipment caused the fire after it became aware of a “transmission-level outage” that happened close to the origins of the fire just around when the blaze began. This kind of transmission line malfunction, which sets off sparks, has become a common occurrence. In the last five years alone, PG&E has reported more than 1,552 equipment-related fires, the major ones being fatal. The utility has been embroiled in bankruptcy disputes after facing $30 billion in liability for its role in the major wildfires of these last couple years.

PG&E has since begun taking measures to reduce its liability. Earlier this month, the utility started imposing rolling shutoffs of energy service during high-risk conditions, as part of a fire management strategy aimed at preventing the utility’s transmission lines from igniting. Last Sunday’s shutoffs will affect both businesses and individual homes alike. People will have trouble going to work, small businesses will take losses, and students will stay home. Families who do not have the economic resources to invest in blackout preparation, like generators and flashlights, will spend the night clouded in uncertainty. Elderly people and those who rely on electric mobility support will be put at risk, and the ill who rely on refrigeration to maintain their medicine will be especially vulnerable. Three million Californians will be hurt.

“I’m outraged, because it didn’t need to happen,” Governor Newsom said in a public statement regarding shutoffs. Newsom agreed public safety power shutdowns were probably a necessity, but he emphasized that they were required only because of PG&E’s extensive history of neglecting maintenance. If the existing infrastructure had historically adhered to basic safety practices, the shutoff would not be necessary.

For years, PG&E has spent funds designated for safety maintenance of transmission lines on executive raises and bonuses. This alarming pattern of unsafe cost-cutting and profiteering has been not only unscrupulous, but also, at times, plainly criminal. In an interview with the College Hill Independent, Mark Toney, executive director of consumer advocacy organization The Utility Reform Network (TURN), cited the San Bruno pipeline explosion of 2010 as a specific instance of PG&E’s criminal behavior. The explosion caused a small earthquake, launched 1,000 feet of fire into the air, and killed eight people. TURN revealed that PG&E had identified that the gas line was in imminent danger of failure for some time. The utility asked for and received $5 million to replace the insecure portion of line, years passed after the procurement of funds with no action. “They didn’t spend the money; they didn’t replace it. They put the money into corporate profits and executive bonuses. Then they asked for it again three years later, the same thing with the same language, and before anything could get done we had the San Bruno explosion,” Toney said. “I think that that kind of evidence was damning for them.” Eventually PG&E was convicted of six felonies—five counts of safety violations and one of obstruction.

Amidst all of the ongoing strife, the utility has failed to complete the necessary line maintenance to prevent even more destructive fires, having only completed a third of maintenance it committed to do for this year. Now it’s imposing blackouts.

PG&E’s unilateral decision making over when, where, and for whom to shut off power for lays bare a troubling truth; Californians currently have little control over their electricity. As the climate crisis intensifies, the world is turning a corner. Globally, nationally, and locally, communities must now contend with how their energy resources will be controlled. To whom will California grant power over its energy?



The Push for a Public Takeover

The recent years of damaging negligence, sometimes to a criminal degree, have led Californians to challenge PG&E’s capability to safely provide electricity, a basic public resource.

A serious call for a public takeover has emerged and the “No PG&E Bailout” Coalition is a critical leader of the movement. Comprised of local advocacy groups, the coalition demands a “public takeover of the monopoly utilities’ electricity grid infrastructure” and pushes to “implement a climate-justice model for development of clean energy resources.” The movement is grounded in principles of democratic governance, an aversion to corporate profiteering, prioritization of communities, and renewable energy. As a member of the public takeover coalition, Mari Taruc told In These Times magazine, “Our utility system has to be more nimble as the climate crisis unfolds.” She added, “The conversation shouldn’t just be about making the transmission lines work better. What if we imagined a decentralized energy system, where we don’t need transmission lines that catch fire?” Mari Taruc is part of the Local Clean Energy Alliance  and coordinates the Utility Justice Campaign. Another organizer with the group, Nishi Sheorey, said, “We are fighting for an equitable, democratized, and decentralized energy model in California, where the development, ownership, and control of energy and services are public and community-based, because we believe that ultimately that will result in a system that is more resilient and responsive to Californians.”

The public takeover movement cares deeply about the democratic control of energy because the direction of electrical grids has tremendous impact on the ecology of the future. Democratizing electric systems in the United States through public ownership can facilitate the transition away from fossil fuels and toward a sustainable future that prioritizes communities instead of profits. Johanna Bozuwa, co-manager of the Climate and Energy Program at The Democracy Collaborative, argues that the public ownership of utilities could accelerate a renewable energy transition at the scale needed to meet our closing climate deadline for action. “It’s simply too late to provide piecemeal incentives and then wait expectantly for a market controlled by fossil fuel interests to voluntarily deploy more renewables,” Bozuwa writes. This argument stresses how energy utilities’ control over an immense amount of energy supply chain make them a strategic platform for bringing energy democracy tactics to scale.  Models for publicly owned utilities also already exist in California. The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) and the Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) serve millions of Californians and are publicly owned. LADWP is actually the largest municipally owned utility in the United States.

Of the thousands of utilities in the United States, only 199 are privately owned,  representing just nine percent of all utilities. Surprisingly, this relatively small number of utilities services 75 percent of the electric consumer base in the country. The incommensurate influence of private utilities is indicative of just how entrenched the prioritization of profit is, even within the provisioning of public goods.



Obstacles to the Public Takeover Movement

If PG&E has been challenged so strongly, and if models of public ownership already exist, why is the shift not happening when the apparent necessity of a public takeover is becoming more urgent?

At the level of the state’s legislators, thinking around addressing the disaster that is PG&E has steered clear of structural change regarding the operation of the utility. Instead, legislators have focused on plans for how PG&E can best handle debt, debating different proposals for granting PG&E tax-exempt bonds for repayment. These proposals work within a status quo in which California is struggling through a state of emergency. Legislators’ aversion to even discussing radical change in favor of debating the details of piecemeal reform displays that they are not only failing to consider all of their options, but that they are failing to treat the fires with the necessary urgency.

Another particularly important group is PG&E’s largest union.  A union’s position on a matter of challenging corporate control can be quite telling because of their uniquely strategic leverage to shut down capital’s profits internally. But within the scope of Californians’ struggle with PG&E, unions aren’t always necessarily aligned with activists. “We represent the workers of every public municipality in Northern Central California except for Palo Alto. So we have no inherent bias for or against investor-owned or public-owned. We represent them all. But as a matter of consistent principle we have opposed to move from either private to public or public to private because of the effects on employees,” said Tom Dalzell, business manager for IBEW Local 1245, in a discussion with the Independent. Dalzell explained that pensions and retiree medical plans are of the most concern in a move to go public. “If you are moving from public to private or private to public, what you leave behind is diminished.” The concerns of the union members are serious and pressing. However, their concerns also exemplify how the details of specific groups work against movements challenging the status quo on a platform of large change.

The movement for the democratic control of energy and a public takeover relies on the supposition that a charged base of consumers will maintain a strong commitment to representing the community and holding utilities accountable. The organizations of vigilant activists who prioritize the community and the disadvantaged above all else certainly display that there are indeed people who can take up that mantle. But, if the current position of the union suggests anything, it is that the same class of people, the working class, has diverse and often conflicting interests.

Indeed, the Utility Reform Network, one of the strongest advocates of consumers, has expressed skepticism regarding the public takeover movement. “I'm concerned that the ‘take PG&E public people’ are relying on very simplistic slogans, that sure sound good but there’s nothing I’ve seen behind them yet,” said Mark Toney, an outspoken critic of PG&E.  “I don’t think there is any magic to a utility being public,” he added, comparing LADWP and SMUD. Referencing LADWP, Toney said, “Look at their track record. They were the largest users of coal in California. They had to be forced, and were laggards on ending their coal. They trailed the investor owned utilities in California. Now of course, SMUD is considered one of the best utilities in the US. When it comes to price and service, and they are leaders in environmental climate change.” The contrast, Toney says, is a “tale of two cities.”

While Toney recognizes how profit incentives can be a problem of the investor owned model, he argued that there are enough poorly run publicly owned utilities that exist already that show that there is no guarantee that a publicly owned utility would necessarily be more accountable. The actual enforcement of regulation within any system is the most important to ensure equitable outcomes. Ultimately, TURN stresses that the public takeover movement needs to have concrete proposals that address the unique deficiencies of PG&E, so that their public model can actualize their theoretical objectives of community minded energy service.



Moving Forward

California’s challenges with PG&E are as much about one utility as they are about more broadly shifting power and control over natural resources. The comments of TURN, an important advocacy group, and the position of the union, a potential change maker, summate a critical aspect of the public movement’s struggles; the politics of the public takeover movement makes for a compelling advocacy that is hard to operationalize. Taken altogether, what is generated is an ever more dire dissonance of inaction.

Often, it is difficult to describe a historic moment as it processes. But on the wide level of acres, California is disintegrating, and with it, families are evacuated en masse as blazes fueled by hurricane winds engulf the Golden State. So despite the smoke that hangs like a shroud, it is extremely clear that California is enduring a crisis of unprecedented historical proportions. Because California is positioned at the front lines of the climate crisis, the course of action the state chooses has the potential to set a precedent across the United States for how energy will be controlled now, and who will control it in the future.


RICARDO GOMEZ B’22  first reported on a transmission line malfunction in second grade.