“Governor. Pete Wilson on Monday signed legislation to deregulate the state’s turn-of-the-century electric utilities and reduce electric bills for residential customers by at least 10 percent.” — Los Angeles Times, September 24, 1996
Do not laugh. Once upon a time, heads of state saw deregulation as the ticket to the promised land, where energy would be cheaper, and no one had to worry about whether there would be enough electricity and natural gas for everyone. The measure passed the Legislative Assembly without a dissenting vote.
Signing the bill, Wilson said: “This landmark legislation is a major step in our efforts to secure lower rates, provide consumer choice and deliver reliable service, so that literally no one is left in the dark. .”
OK, go ahead and laugh.
Twenty-six years later, we understand that mistakes were made. We now await how we can ensure reliable and secure energy supplies to fuel future prosperity.
As The New York Times reported (see Monday’s Press Democrat), “California finds itself more than ever on edge with one lingering fear: the threat of blackouts for years to come.”
In the September 4 Forum section, you may have read an excerpt from a new book, “California Burning: The Fall of Pacific Gas and Electric Company – and What It Means for America’s Power Grid.” Author, Wall Street Journal energy reporter Katherine Blunt, recounts how PG&E has been blamed for a host of poor results, including catastrophic fires, a devastating natural gas explosion, two bankruptcies and the lingering threat of blackouts of electricity. (She even details a 1911 Railroad Commission hearing in Santa Rosa in which PG&E and the former Great Western Power Co. competed for the same North Bay customers.)
Reviewing the book, the Los Angeles Times said: “Blunt’s book is not a technical tome but a drama, a human tragedy, loaded with compelling characters and tales of death and destruction, incompetence and chicanery, embezzlement and greed.”
Along the way, we learn how government works (and doesn’t work) on behalf of its citizens.
“A series of executives had sought to please investors and politicians, often at the expense of customers,” Blunt writes, “As the company faced the risks of an aging power grid, the problems were staggering.”
The 2018 campfire, the most devastating wildfire in state history, started with a spark from a single worn hook attached to an aging transmission tower. Eighty-four people died.
In Blunt’s book, we learn that the tower was installed by the former Great Western Power Co. before merging with PG&E in 1930. FBI investigators discovered that the failed hook was purchased in 1919 from an Ohio company.
After conducting his own investigation, the Butte County prosecutor said, “In 1930, PG&E blindly bought a used car. PG&E drove this car until it fell apart.
Blunt also reminds us that PG&E wasn’t the only one to blame. Politicians, regulators, investors who valued short-term profits over long-term stability, corporations eager to manipulate energy markets, a deregulation plan that was not what it was supposed to be – all have contributed to the series of debacles that have left state residents wondering what will happen the next time the power grid comes under strain.
And, of course, other questions enter the conversation: should we build so many houses in fire-prone areas? Do we need to pursue more ambitious forest management programs?
Above all, how should we react to the increased risk caused by climate change?
It’s forgotten now, but PG&E was once a well-respected, regulated utility that managed to maintain a positive presence in most northern and central California communities.
But then came investor pressure to cut costs, deregulation, third-party energy market gambling, bankruptcy, a gas explosion in San Bruno, catastrophic fires and a second bankruptcy. And so here we are stuck with a struggling utility and a power grid that may not be up to snuff.
PG&E executives insist the company culture is changing, the San Francisco Chronicle reported. “Every day, we remain focused on safety, and it’s at the forefront of everything we do,” the company’s chief operating officer told the state Utilities Commission. “We know we have a lot of work to do.”
California is not alone, of course. In Texas, which likes to brag about its business-friendly programs, people died last year when cold weather and a poorly maintained distribution system forced utility companies to impose blackouts on 4 million people. People suffered from hypothermia, carbon monoxide poisoning, failing water systems, polluted drinking water and hospitals in crisis.
In California, Texas and elsewhere, it may be popular in the short term to cut utility bills, but the time will come when there will be a price to pay for unrealized investments. Old equipment is old equipment. This worn hook in the Feather River Canyon, the one responsible for the campfire, was made 103 years ago.
It bears mentioning that the energy crisis is becoming not just an object lesson for PG&E, but an object lesson for any state or community that fails to maintain the roads, highways, bridges, waterworks and other investments in the world. ‘coming.
Pete Golis is a columnist for The Press Democrat. Email him at [email protected]
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