In September, Stockton’s council voted for the city to join an energy supplier other than PG&E. To my knowledge, no news outlet analyzed this step; all merely reported it.
Life in a news desert.
So, while city staff reports found few, if any, downsides to the deal, we should “power through” some knowledgeable sources in the next couple weeks for perspective on it.
It might be interesting, though, to start with “incumbent” power company Pacific Gas & Electric, the man slaughtering monopoly that long combined some of the nation’s highest energy rates with scofflaw safety practices.
We all know PG&E for its ever-rising rates, its deadly forest fires and gas explosions, and its two bankruptcies. But a century ago, PG&E’s visionary electrification was instrumental in making California the economic powerhouse it is today, poised to surpass Germany as the world’s 4th-largest economy.
There’s more to be learned from a new book, “California Burning: The Fall of Pacific Gas and Electric—and What it Means for America’s Power Grid,” by Wall Street Journal reporter Katherine Blunt.
The basics: the Nation’s largest electric utility, the San Francisco-based, investor-owned company provides natural gas and electricity to 5.2 million households in northern California.
From its hydroelectric plants in steep Sierra river gorges (and plants elsewhere), its 5,500 miles of transmission lines fan out across a vast 70,000-square-mile territory from a Bakersfield to the Oregon border.
From the book one gleans two major reasons PG&E cratered.
The first is drought made worse by climate change. It dried California’s forests into a tinderbox where a major fire can start from a single spark. In California, utilities are liable for damage they cause. PG&E has paid billions.
The other is that the utility paid far too little attention to safety.
There were various reasons. State regulators failed: not only did the California Public Utilities Commission get too cozy with the utility, the CPUC focused PG&E on transitioning to renewable power. Safety evidently was not progressive enough.
PG&E, for its part, prioritized profit and paying shareholder dividends, giving inspections and maintenance short shrift. Repairs in lucrative cities took precedence over lightly populated rural areas, where infrastructure was left to rot. The company believed that Southern California was the real wildfire threat.
Throw in inexplicably bad record-keeping — there were virtually no records of inspection and maintenance for certain areas — and a heaping helping of corporate arrogance and dishonesty, and you have a goliath that remained willfully blind to the potential for catastrophe even as upwards of 200 million trees died of drought and bark beetle infestation and century-old transmission lines began to topple.
The part that failed, allowing a power line to fall and spark the horrific 2018 Camp Fire, which burned 150,000 acres, wiped out 19,000 structures, including the town of Paradise, and killed at least 85 people, was installed in 1919. During its entire century of wear, it may never have been properly inspected. Not even once.
Parallel negligence and possible dissembling from PG&E’s gas division caused the 2010 San Bruno pipeline explosion. A leaky 30-inch pipe erupted in a tremendous explosion. A fireball shot 1,000 feet into the air, upwards of 40 houses were demolished, and eight people died.
PG&E records falsely said the pipe was seamless. In fact, it had a weld, and a faulty one at that. Legally required pressure testing would have detected the leak. PG&E did not test.
Now the company’s CEO is on commercials boasting of the company’s safety-first “undergrounding” of power lines. It is true PG&E is biting the bullet with this expensive procedure. Buried lines cannot start fires.
But a staggering 8 million trees stand within “strike distance” of PG&E power lines, many in remote, windswept areas. PG&E is so far behind in tree trimming and undergrounding it will not remove hazard for decades to come.
California remains at risk. That is why rural residents say PG&E stands for “Pray to God and Evacuate.”
Locally, Stockton’s City Council voted to join a “community choice aggregator” called the East Bay Community Energy Authority. This alternative to PG&E can still provide Stockton power over the company’s grid that may be greener, cheaper and beneficial in other ways.
But there are risks. We’ll look at them soon.
Investigative columnist Michael Fitzgerald’s column runs on Wednesdays. Phone (209) 687-9585. On Twitter and Instagram as Stocktonopolis. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.