By THOMAS ELIAS
There is no public polling on this issue, but anyone who travels around California can sense that many, if not most, electric customers would like to be rid of big utility companies like Pacific Gas & Electric and Southern California Edison, yet they fear possible consequences if those firms disappear.
Reader T.J. in Nevada County put it this way: “PG&E is far from perfect, but when you think of them gone, what have we got left?” The answer is: plenty.
T.J.’s letter demonstrates that he understands the perfidy of PG&E, his local utility. But like many others, T.J. fears the demise of big electric providers would automatically mean long blackouts and brownouts, not “mere” power shutdowns to keep the companies’ poorly maintained transmission lines from causing disasters.
But it’s not necessarily so. The bankrupt PG&E, for one, has been declared both a felon and a probation violator that has caused massive loss of life and property. If it were a person, not a corporation, that person would be imprisoned right now. So much for the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which held that corporations are like people. They’re not. Big corporations are much more privileged than people.
They can cause wildfires putting thousands out of their homes and flee into bankruptcy to avoid paying the price of their negligence. They can follow up by asking the state to rescue them, and cow legislators into setting up a fund that will eventually amount to more than $20 billion. They can then follow up with a demand for a huge rate increase, as if it were deserved.
Do we really need companies like this, aside from the fact they’ve donated well over $1 million to candidates including the governor, even while bankrupt? This includes Edison, which is not yet bankrupt, but also helped cause huge fires and has so far not paid for damages. Edison also apparently conspired illegally with since-departed regulators to dun customers billions of dollars for the costs of its blunder that shut down the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station.
The formal state investigation of that possible crime has essentially disappeared, the state attorney general refusing to say what’s become of the probe started and then buried by his predecessor, current Democratic U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris.
T.J. and others who fear the loss of familiar utilities should take comfort, however, in the fact that when a corporation disappears, its assets don’t necessarily vanish suddenly. If PG&E and Edison were gone, their hydroelectric dams would remain. Their staffers would not suddenly lose all their skills and knowledge. Power lines would stay up, too.
So corporate disappearances would not be into thin air. Consumer attorney Mike Aguirre, a former elected city attorney of San Diego, the other day filed with the California Public Utilities Commission a proposed map dividing PG&E’s huge service area into eight distinct, geographically sensible parts, each of which a bankruptcy judge could order sold to the highest bidder. The money could pay off the losses of uninsured wildfire victims. New owners would decide whether to retain current employees.
Meanwhile, the vast majority of cities and counties that have formed Community Choice Aggregations to municipalize power service are doing just fine, some even wanting to issue bonds they’d like to use for buying electric transmission lines from the big utilities. CCAs now pay to use those lines.
In short, California could have many publicly owned utilities instead of three huge privately-owned ones and a few government-owned power outfits, like the Sacramento Municipal Utility District, the Los Angeles Department of Water & Power and smaller outfits like Burbank Water & Power, Riverside Public Utilities and the Redding Electric Utility.
If they can bring cheaper power and other services to their communities without the “expertise” of the big utilities whose territory surrounds them, why couldn’t buyers of PG&E, Edison and their components?
So take comfort T.J. and others: You have nothing to fear except freedom from corrupt, cheating corporations who survive only by paying off politicians (Gov. Gavin Newsom took $208,000 PG&E campaign dollars last year, for just one example) and gouging the customers they are supposed to serve.
Email Thomas Elias at email@example.com.