An Open Letter to the California Public Utilities CommissionPosted: October 21, 2019
To: Marybel Batjer, President
and members of the California Public Utilities Commission
From: A frustrated Californian
President Batjer and Commissioners Aceves, Randolph, Rechtschaffen and Shiroma:
It is now just over a week since Pacific Gas & Electric carried out the largest intentional power outage in the history of our state — maybe even the history of our nation.
In case you missed the news, it did not go well.
Hundreds of thousands of my neighbors were forced into darkness, both literally and figuratively, as PG&E fiddled with the switch. And while the literal darkness may be a consequence of the “new normal” of wildfire risk in California, the figurative darkness of this event was entirely man-made and completely inexcusable. PG&E failed utterly in its duty to keep customers, local governments and first responders informed both before and during the shutdown. This should never be allowed to happen again.
I am writing to you as regulators of our nation’s largest private utility company with two specific requests:
1. Demand that PG&E, after years of neglect and plush profits, finally upgrade and underground our electric infrastructure throughout the system.
Yes, we know PG&E has filed for bankruptcy protection. But the company also continues to lavish its executives with multi-million-dollar salaries and fancy wine-country dinners (at the same time its customers were eating everything in their refrigerators in preparation for the power cut-off). It buys full-page ads in our local newspaper telling us how to “prepare” for power shut-downs — the day after the power was shut off. It’s spending tens of millions of dollars on lawyers defending the company from fire-related lawsuits.
What it should be doing is investing its profits into modernizing an antiquated system that — by its own admission — endangers the lives of all of us. How can any business defend a practice that has live electrical wires hanging off of a 100-year-old transmission tower that was poorly maintained— the PG&E-identified source of the Camp Fire that leveled Paradise and killed 85 people just last year?
Yes, we have heard repeatedly from PG&E executives that they are pouring resources into clearing trees from around their wires and hardening their infrastructure to make it safer. But last week’s shutoff made it clear that PG&E’s work is nowhere near good enough. How is it that we can pass laws and regulations for seismic retrofitting, but we can’t keep the lights on in a stiff wind? When you have to cut off power to 34 counties because the forecast is for wind, you need to do better.
Please, President Batjer and Commissioners, make PG&E do better.
2. Work with the state Legislature and local governments, such as Sonoma County and the City of Santa Rosa, to create a new emergency-response system that allows us to have more say about when a power shutdown occurs.
PG&E has a single purpose in this world: to make money for its shareholders. Sure, it spends millions on marketing campaigns telling all of us how much it cares, but facts are facts. It’s a business and its bottom line is the same as any business — to turn a profit.
Which means it has a serious conflict-of-interest when it comes to making the decision whether to keep the power on. It can’t put public safety and public interest first when its primary obligation is to its shareholders.
Bill Johnson, PG&E’s Chief Executive, likely would argue that point, and some supporters might even believe him. But PG&E doesn’t have that many supporters any more. It has lost the public’s trust — Johnson admitted as much last week — with not just a long spate of utility-caused wildfires, but also the San Bruno natural-gas explosion in 2010, the stonewalling of fire survivors after the Tubbs Fire and now this widespread intentional power outage that was mishandled on a level that only a mega-corporation could mess up this badly.
I believe that power shutoffs can play a valuable role in public safety. I have seen the way that San Diego Gas & Electric works with local governments, first responders and individual customers to prepare a community for necessary outages, and to provide necessary resources for those who can’t cope on their own when the power goes out.
That needs to happen at our end of the state, as well. But currently in the second fire season of PG&E’s experiment with its own shutoffs, it is clear that PG&E should not be allowed to make these decisions on its own.
So please, President Batjer and Commissioners, let’s figure out a way to keep public safety in the hands of the public by including our representatives in the decision-making process alongside of the huge, for-profit corporation.
We rely on the California Public Utilities Commission for these requests, because you are the regulator of this business. We have no options such as boycotting or shopping around when it comes to having electricity delivered to our homes. Please help us improve the performance of PG&E, and to preserve the safety of all of us who live in California.
It’s time to make these reforms a reality. For the sake of millions of Californians, and billions of dollars worth of property, have the courage to rein in PG&E.
Former Mayor, City of Santa Rosa