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Give PG&E to the People

Publicly Owned Utilities are critical to our clean energy future. Palm Springs, California.

Publicly Owned Utilities are critical to our clean energy future. Palm Springs, California.

Last week, Cal Fire released the findings of their investigation concluding that Pacific Gas and Electric was, as previously thought, responsible for 2018’s Camp Fire in Paradise California, the states most deadly and costly wildfire ever.  Coinciding with the investigation, PG&E filed in January for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, as mounting lawsuits and liabilities from the Camp Fire, as well as at least twelve fires in Sonoma County in 2017, cripple the utility giant.  

PG&E currently supplies energy to 5.4 million households in California.  They are the largest utility provider in the country. As judges, lawmakers and lobbyists mull its fate, the opportunity to bring the investor-owned company into public ownership as a means to rapidly convert our country’s energy grid to renewable sources, is ripe and should be exploited aggressively.

California should not bail out the utility monopoly.  We should own it ourselves.

With the climate emergency now obvious, the UN clearly presenting both the magnitude of the crisis and mitigating strategies in just the last few weeks and months, the idea of reinvesting utility profit margins into renewable infrastructure by bringing them under public ownership is an attractive idea toward carbon neutrality.

In the United Kingdom, Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party is fighting for just this.  They hope that by nationalizing the utility grid, they can quickly convert 2.2 million homes to cheap, renewable energy—mostly delivered by solar panels.

Relative to Pacific Gas & Electric, San Francisco is attempting to municipalize it’s jurisdiction of the giant as we speak.  

This wouldn’t be without precedent.  Here in the state’s capital we enjoy publicly owned, not-for-profit utilities.  Nearly a century ago, Sacramento voted to wrestle control of their utilities from PG&E.  By 1946 they had won. Today, SMUD has a long way to go to provide sustainable energy to its users but it has transitioned more quickly to renewables than its investor-owned counterparts.  Being owned by the people will make today’s necessary transition far more democratic and efficient.

Given that not every city in California is as well off as San Francisco, we should think beyond municipal breakups and take over the company at the state level. Unlike the decades long battle Sacramento encountered, the PG&E we see today is ill prepared for the same kind of fight.

PG&E is the largest utility provider America.  It is extraordinarily vulnerable, financially and politically, and its future is in the hands of perhaps the most progressive state legislature in the country.  This is a once in a lifetime chance to change the dynamics of the climate fight when it’s needed most. Californians are frothing to make an example of PG&E. Why not make it a constructive one?

Regardless of one’s party preference, it should be obvious that market forces will not ensure the decarbonization of America by 2030.  The most Serious People from both sides predict it’s impossible. These are the people who say capitalism can do anything, but it cannot do what’s required to stop the climate emergency.  But it’s got to get done, physics insists. In eleven years. Only massive government investment and regulation can stem the breakdown. Nationalizing our utilities in order to rapidly unwind our carbon dependency, without deference to shareholder interests, is the most straightforward path.  Not easy by any measure, but necessary. Here in California we have an incredible opportunity to start that movement on the largest scale to date. With the beast down, we can act decisively.

PG&E is a terrible company that has contributed handily to our global heating and has created umpteen localized disasters in the process.  Californians, especially those acutely affected by the company’s negligence deserve to deny them any more profit and claim the grid as their own.  With the people’s interests top of mind— affordable, clean and safe energy—we can design a framework for the rest of the country and meet the challenges the next decade will demand of us.