PGE

Over the past few years, Pacific Gas and Electric has tormented the people of California and the people of rural California in particular.

The Butte fire burned 70,000 acres in Amador and Calaveras counties, destroyed 475 homes and killed two people in 2015. PG&E was found liable for failing to keep trees trimmed near its power lines. A CAL FIRE investigation found that PG&E equipment caused 12 fires in October of 2018 alone, including devastating fires in Napa and Lake counties, culminating in the Camp Fire in November of last year, the deadliest fire in California history, which destroyed the town of Paradise and killed 85 people.

PG&E, now in bankruptcy due to the liability from all these fires caused by their neglect, devised a cunning plan to avoid more fires: turn the power off when the wind blows. So, instead of doing their job of maintaining a power grid, their solution is to not do their job and deny power that our community and economy depends on. They pass the liability to us, the users, as we light candles and start up generators to keep our lights on. But sure, PG&E, shutting off the power grid will prevent fires.

I have a better idea: public power. Public utilities provide power to communities throughout California. Next door in Sacramento County, the Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) provides power to millions of customers without sparking fires or forced outages. Public utilities provide power to communities as large as Los Angles and as small as Weaverville (population 3,600). Truckee has public power. So does Ukiah.

What makes public power better? No stockholders, just ratepayers. PG&E is beholden to its stockholders, including its executives, who are mostly paid in stock. PG&E paid out $798 million dollars in 2017 and $925 million in 2018 in dividends. That’s money that could have gone to cutting back trees and hardening power lines against the totally unsurprising California weather conditions of hot and windy.

But PG&E would rather keep shareholders happy. A public utility doesn’t have shareholders and can spend its money on things like the safety of its customers. Public power is also a much better deal on salaries for executives. The head of SMUD, one of the top-paid public utility executives in the state, earns half a million dollars a year. The CEO of PG&E makes more than $8 million. Two other PG&E executives make $3 million a year each and five more make more than a million dollars a year.

In Amador County we have several options to make our power public. One, we could be annexed into SMUD, whose current territory map touches the western Amador County line. Two, we could form our own public utility district. Trinity PUD in Trinity County serves an area even more spread out and rural than here. Or three, we could band together with our fellow Foothill counties. Tuolumne already has a public power agency that gets a share of the electricity generated by New Melones Dam and serves public agencies throughout Tuolumne County.

Regardless of how its organized, we have the means of power production already in place. PG&E owns four hydro-electric facilities in Amador County – Salt Springs, Tiger Creek, Electra and West Point – generating a total of 215 megawatts of power. That’s enough to power something on the order of 100,000 to 200,000 homes. These plants could be purchased through eminent domain (along with power lines, substations and the rest) for our new public utility, providing enough power for all of Amador, Calaveras and Tuolumne counties, with plenty left over to sell to the big cities.

No more overpaid executives, no more neglected power lines sparking deadly fires, no more power shutoffs … no more torment.

Contact Ledger Dispatch reporter Craig Baracco at cbaracco@ledger.news.