Anyone in California holding their breath until the electric power/wildfire relationship issue is resolved will likely need a respirator.
Experts are clear about what to expect — many years of Californians being menaced by downed power lines sparking wildfires, in large part because the problem is far too extensive for a quick, easy solution.
To make matters even more complicated, Pacific Gas & Electric Co., whose downed power lines are to blame for several massive, killer fires in the past couple of years, is in the midst of yet another bankruptcy, company officials essentially admitting they have no viable solutions.
Burying power lines is one option, but it would cost billions of dollars PG&E does not have, and is not likely to have. The company’s bankruptcy a decade and a half ago ended with a ratepayer-funded bailout, costing $7.2 billion, and things have only gotten worse with regard to the company’s power lines being responsible for causing big wildfires.
California’s natural allure is partly to blame. A flood of newcomers equals a need for more housing, which equals development pushing into what had been the state’s wild country, which results in houses — and the power lines that feed them electricity — being in places ripe for wildfires.
If California Gov. Gavin Newsom has any presidential aspirations, resolving the power company/wildfire-nexus problem would likely get him on the Democrats’ short list of candidates.
As it is, the governor’s notion of having government entities take over for the private-sector PG&E is gaining traction. The mayors of dozens of cities are pressuring Newsom to turn PG&E into a customer-owned co-op, likely provoking a legal battle involving the company’s investors.
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Doing something of that nature would also bring about massive costs, which presumably would be paid by taxpayers.
Meanwhile, a lot of folks who had been perfectly happy living in California now wonder if it’s worth the existing and potential future costs. The capital outlays that PG&E should have made decades ago, but didn’t, still need to be done. The question is — who will make the fixes, and who will pay?
Also meanwhile, unless we have an extraordinarily wet winter, the wildfire problem is only going to worsen, a situation compounded by the fact that there isn’t much power companies can do to end their role in starting wildfires — except to guess where a fire may occur, and shut off the power before that happens.
Frankly, these are all miserable options. Leaving power customers in the dark during potential emergency situations borders on criminal behavior. On the other hand, letting nature and dangling power lines take their courses borders on criminal negligence.
California may not have many choices. Some experts believe this latest PG&E bankruptcy is the beginning of the end for the company anyway. As officials at the consumer organization Utility Reform Network phrased it, PG&E will “never again” be able to provide “safe and reliable service” at reasonable rates. By the way, that is the group that referred to PG&E’s “culture of criminal conduct …”
It is evident that Californians are angry and frightened, as they should be. All of which demands some response from the state’s elected leaders. PG&E is not going to fix the problem, in essence because it can’t fix it. Meanwhile, the governor is not pleased with the restructuring plan PG&E proposed in its Chapter 11 filing.
The company’s 5 million California customers can expect to be left in the dark when fires threaten. PG&E has no other choice.