PG&E Blackouts Spur Calls for Public Ownership

October 31, 2019

PG&E cut power to millions throughout California this month as fires blaze across the state. The move has prompted many to call to municipalize the company. Democracy Collaborative researcher Johanna Bozuwa explains.

PG&E cut power to millions throughout California this month as fires blaze across the state. The move has prompted many to call to municipalize the company. Democracy Collaborative researcher Johanna Bozuwa explains.


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Story Transcript

DHARNA NOOR: It’s The Real News. I’m Dharna Noor.

As multiple fires burn across California, thousands of residents have been left in the dark, prompting calls for publicly owned electricity. As of Wednesday afternoon, over a hundred thousand acres are in flames across the state, from Los Angeles to the Bay area. The Kincade Fire in Northern California is the largest in the state. It’s burned over 76,000 acres and destroyed 189 structures so far. Meteorologists expected strong winds Tuesday night would make the fire much worse, and it wasn’t as bad a night as they expected. But in the Northern part of the state, the Getty Fire is raging through the Los Angeles area. And meteorologists have warned that the extraordinarily dry, prolonged Santa Ana winds that are set to move through the area on Wednesday could make the fires there far, far worse.

Pacific Gas and Electric, the investor owned utility that supplies power to most of the state, has cut electricity to hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses to reduce wildfire risk. The utility company estimates that 75% of over 970,000 customers who lost power on Sunday have now had their electricity restored, and the company says that that move was necessary because hot dry wind can knock down power lines and start fires in the dry trees and devastation. But the blackout spurred outrage for many, and some are now calling to make the utility company publicly owned. PG&E, which provides power to most of the state, filed for bankruptcy in January, citing potential civil liabilities in excess of $30 billion from the fires.

Now joining me to talk about all of this is Johanna Bozuwa. She is a research associate at the Democracy Collaborative. Thank you for being here again.

JOHANNA BOZUWA: Thank you so much for having me, Dharna.

DHARNA NOOR: So again, on Sunday as California governor Gavin Newsom declared a statewide emergency, PG&E cut power to almost a million Californians. And a few weeks ago, they cut power to some two million people. Some of them didn’t even get a warning. Was this move justified? I mean, again, the company says that it was to protect from further wildfire risks.

JOHANNA BOZUWA: Yeah. So obviously we don’t want to put us at more wildfire risk. This is a longer story. PG&E has disinvested in its grid for decades upon decades, and that has led us to the situation in which we have a precarious energy system that can’t handle when these new climate induced wildfires are happening much more often. In addition, they also help to create this climate crisis that we’re in right now by being the ones that were burning the coal, oil and gas for far too long. And now we’re in this moment of total crisis in which we’re confronted with the problem of having to shut people’s power off or have more wildfires. But the blanket amount of people that they’re shutting off power to is totally unacceptable, and they aren’t actually taking the time to set up the structures we need so that people can survive these wildfires.

So for instance, what we’ve heard from governor Gavin Newsom is that these have not been surgical power shutoffs, they have been blanket. They have not considered how to actually take care of the folks who are without power right now. It was about only one place that folks had come to, for instance, charge their phone within a County that is just absolutely not enough. Their phone lines have gone down, their website isn’t up, so people can’t even get the information they need. And that is why these shutoffs have been so detrimental. And who are they detrimental to the most? Our low income community members, disabled community members, and elderly community members who need access to energy for things like medical assistance or to keep their medicines cold so that they can take them. Life sustaining things that now PG&E, because of their lack of precision in terms of how they were doing these shutoffs has left these people truly in the dark.

DHARNA NOOR: And of course, as you said, PG&E has fueled the climate crisis. They’ve harmed people by shutting off electricity, sometimes without warning. And of course, they also filed for bankruptcy in January because they were found responsible for at least in part fueling last year’s campfire, the deadliest wildfire in California’s history. And then two years ago in 2017, PG&E was found responsible for at least 17 of 21 major wildfires. How does an electricity company help fuel these kinds of disasters?

JOHANNA BOZUWA: Well, I mean it helps fuel it through commitment to fossil fuel infrastructure to not investing in the grid as it needs to; and just being negligent. These corporate entities are much more interested in their profits and their shareholders than they are to the community members of California. And they’ve proved that time and time again. This is not the first time that PG&E has gone bankrupt. This is not the first time that we’ve seen them put the corporate actors and themselves ahead of the people of California. And it became so clear to me in some ways when right before the initial shutoffs were happening, what were they having? They were having their gas executives courting some of the biggest gas users at a Sonoma winery and days before other people were being shut off, and now Sonoma is in flames. It just shows where they have their priorities and it’s not with the people of California.

DHARNA NOOR: But what does the actual infrastructure do to fuel wildfires? I mean, for instance, like they’ve been coming under fire, no pun intended, for not putting enough energy into trimming trees. So talk about how the physical infrastructure can actually make it easier for these wildfires to occur.

JOHANNA BOZUWA: Yeah, so there’s a bunch of stuff where basically they have not been taken care of their transmission. Those are the big, big pieces of infrastructure that cross the state that are helping to provide access to energy to different parts of the state. Those things have not been invested in in years. And the Wall Street Journal did some really good reporting on this that showed that you’ve seen less and less investment over time by PG&E and so that when you’re just allowing your grid to degrade to such a degree and aren’t out there thinking about trimming trees and also not thinking about like what new technologies we have to actually deal and confront with the new issues that necessitate us thinking better about resiliency. Right? So that means investing in distributed energy resources like community solar. It means thinking about things like micro grids that we can better turn on and off different parts of the grid and be more responsive. Obviously, PG&E has not done that and now we’re in this crisis because they haven’t been thinking about how they react to the climate crisis effectively and their infrastructure reflects that.

DHARNA NOOR: And you’re an advocate obviously of making power public to respond to these kinds of crises. And you’re not alone, on Sunday presidential candidate Bernie Sanders Tweeted, it is time to begin thinking about public ownership of major utilities on CNBC, California, representative Ro Khanna from Silicon Valley also called for the state to make PG&E publicly owned. And you’ve been researching this and advocating for this for a long time. What would making the utility public do to protect Californians from these kinds of wildfires, from climate change?

JOHANNA BOZUWA: Yeah, Dharna. So for me, this is about accountability. It’s about democracy and it’s about providing a public service. Like it really is a public service. I think what we need to understand is that with publicly owned utility, we are the ones in charge and we are the ones that are designing that institution. Right now in an investor owned utility model, the incentives are to make returns. And that’s not actually always in the public interest as we’ve seen with PG&E. And so by putting us in charge, we can design the institution so it’s reacting to the California context. So that is helping the people and providing a public service like it really is something that belongs to the public. And additionally, it also provides us more opportunity to be engaged and hold accountable our systems.

In a publicly run system. We are in a situation in which we don’t have the same amount of corporate influence that is going to be influencing the future of our energy system. Because they invest our own utilities, pour millions and millions of dollars into our legislatures. And that is why PG&E has been able to get so much out of the California context. And that’s not to say that a publicly owned system is going to be the perfect one, but it’s how we organize and how we build that institution. We have an opportunity to create something that is from the get-go climate resilient, that’s thinking about issues of democracy and is thinking about these issues of corporate influence.

And often people who may say, “Hey, why would public institutions be any better?” They can also lobby. The magnitude is just so radically different. PG&E at the national level spent $10 million lobbying and they’re Edison Electric Institute. That provides a lot of the industrie’s lobbying for them also spent another $8 million on lobbying. Let’s now contrast that to what the American public power association spent, which lobby’s on behalf of public power. It was under $1 million. So we just have far more recourse when we have a public institution and we are able to actually design it from the get-go in this situation.

DHARNA NOOR: So last month in September, San Francisco officials offered to purchase the parts of the utility grid that serve the city and County of San Francisco and, and their local public utilities commission said that the deal wouldn’t raise electricity rates locally. That’s a concern sometimes when utilities become publicly owned, that rates will go up. But they did say that it could increase the rates in the rest of California. And some are also concerned that that move could increase the fire and liability risk for the rest of PG&Es territory. So I just want to take a look at a clip from Leah Stokes on Democracy Now this past Tuesday.

Leah Stokes: There are some reasons why cleaving off a part of PG&E and to a municipal utility for San Francisco, I don’t really feel makes sense because what you’re going to do is have a huge amount of fire risk and liability for the rest of the PG&E territory, which theoretically will not be under that San Francisco municipalities control. And so my concern about some of these campaigns that are playing out, particularly in San Francisco as well as in New York City to try to turn existing private utilities into sort of city owned public utilities is that they’re breaking up these larger utilities into smaller urban areas where of course we have progressive’s and that’s great, but what happens to the rest of the system?

DHARNA NOOR: So what’s your response to that kind of critique?

JOHANNA BOZUWA: Yeah. So I respect Leah Stokes immensely, I think she’s an incredible political scientist and, and I think for me this is, there is still a justification for San Francisco municipalizing. And I think it’s because it is the domino that can be tipped. We have the political momentum and organizing to potentially municipalize there and already the city has taken steps to do so. San Jose has put out a proposal that says, “We can create a cooperatively owned utility for California that’s owned by us and is democratically accountable to us.” And that I think, is it from political momentum perspective, one of the real benefits of seeing this wave of municipalization happening. And actually from a historical perspective, this is what happened in Nebraska. And Nebraska is the only fully public power state. And the way that that happened was about 10 to 15 years.

There was some enabling legislation in Nebraska. People were so fed up with the investor owned utilities that were extorting it and exploiting them that the enabling legislation allowed them to municipalize and they did it. Oh, a wave of municipalizations followed. Then in 10 to 15 years it was a fully public state and they have created a system that is based off of that, therefore. So I think that that would be one of my responses. And the other one is that PG&E is fear-mongering to a certain degree as well. I think we absolutely need to think about the transition and what it could potentially mean and how do we mitigate that situation. But I also think that PG&E will take any opportunity to try to exploit the people of California so that it can keep its revenues up. Honestly, that is something that could potentially happen. But I think that’s something we need to push back on because, PG&E shouldn’t be able to do that because they have found so many ways of, gaining more money out of our system than they should’ve been able to do anyway.

DHARNA NOOR: Is it also easier to hold public utilities accountable than private ones? Obviously, there’s been issues of malfeasance in both public utilities and private ones.

JOHANNA BOZUWA: Yeah. And I think that’s a really important question to answer. I mean when it comes to private it’s always said, “Oh well if the public can’t do this.” Well private corporations are filled with malfeasance and the issue there is that we have far, we have less recourse, we have less ability to actually hold these, for instance, utilities accountable.

I mean we had Enron that already happened and then we re-upped with PG&E and the same thing is happening again in GM. There are all these examples and so sure a public institution may also be mismanaged but at least we have the recourse and for the context of PG&E the proposals that are out right now, it’s either we keep on going with PG&E. We have Berkshire Hathaway come in which is a big utility corporation that’s been shutting down the type of distributed solar we need in order to create resiliency. And we have Elliot Management coming in being called an activist investor. In fact, they are a vulture investor or a disaster capitalist who’s coming in and trying to make as much money as a Wall Street investor off of this climate crisis.

And what they’re going to do is try to extract as much money from this processes as possible. And at the end of the day, that’s not actually about resilience. And so at least in a public institution, if we are the ones that buy it, we have more recourse than we would elsewhere.

DHARNA NOOR: And what about the climate impact? So in the wake of these fires on Wednesday, the youth led environmental advocacy group, The Sunrise Movement held a sit in at house speaker and Nancy Pelosi’s office demanding climate action. And of course, wildfires are fueled by the climate crisis. Wildfires themselves are normal, but they’ve become much more severe as this state has gotten hotter and drier. The climate crisis is of course, fueled literally by the use of fossil fuels. And in a recent article in Teen Vogue, Greta Moran noted that five years ago, Burlington Vermont “Became the first city in the US to move to a hundred percent renewables while maintaining the same rates since 2009.” But some have also noted that public utilities don’t always move away from fossil fuels more quickly.

For instance, again on Democracy Now, Leah Stokes noted that public utilities in California resisted the first clean energy law passed in 2002 so it didn’t even apply to them. Does public ownership necessarily mean that a utilities become more sustainable and if not, how can folks really push to make sure that public utility’s actually do take climate action?

JOHANNA BOZUWA: Yeah, and so I think that’s a really important point. Obviously not all publicly owned utilities are operating like we’d like them to, and they may not even have democratic processes to the extent that we want. But with public institutions, we are not waiting for the benevolence of a, for instance, an investor owned utility to go to 100% renewable. We have more methods of accountability in a way that we would not have had otherwise. For instance, just things like having the open meetings act so that we can get access to meetings and open information act that give us access to governmental information.

So those are just on a very baseline, create more opportunities for us to organize. And in the end these public institutions are supposed to be beholden to their stakeholders who are us. We are in the end both their stake and stock holders. So it is a fair critique to say that not all public utilities have been great. I also think that another piece is that we are proposing and many of the people who are advocating for public ownership as a climate strategy are actually saying, “Well we’re redesigning the system. We are going to build this thing so that it is based on climate justice.” So that it is a system that isn’t based off of fossil fuels in a centralized model. And we can actually redesign these things so it starts to center the things that we actually want in this energy transition. So I think that those are the things that make me an advocate for public power and the reasons why I will continue to advocate for public power.

DHARNA NOOR: So depending on who you ask, one of the priorities that might come forth with that kind of democratic leadership is equity. Like, racial equity, gender equity. I want to just end on this. There’s this clip from the YouTube commentator Dave Rubin, who just went on Tucker Carlson and basically said that California is too busy focused on wokeness to control the fires or something. Let’s take a look at that. Who would care?

DAVE RUBIN: The problem right now is that everything from academia to public utilities to politics, everything that goes woke that that buys into this ridiculous progressive ideology that cares about what contractors are LGBT or how many black firemen we have or white this or Asian that everything that goes that road eventually breaks down. Imagine if your house was on fire, would you care what the public utility or what the fire company, what contractor they brought in, what gender or sexuality or any of those things he or she was, I mean it’s just absolutely ridiculous.

DHARNA NOOR: So what’s your response to this? And then more importantly, if you are say as someone who cares about racial equity and gender equity, not just like representation but real equity can public utility has helped further those goals?

JOHANNA BOZUWA: Yes. So I actually do care who my contractor is. Because I can say right now, the people who are putting out fires are incarcerated folk. And that is not what we want to be seeing. And also, who is the contractor will affect who gets access to those services. And we see this time and time again, where there are biases; hat if we’re only allowing white owned businesses into these spaces who are they more likely to help? And so those are really important things, as well as the fact that economic resiliency is a key factor of climate resiliency. The people who are being most affected are low income community members. And if we have the potential to actually create space so that community members get access to good family-sustaining jobs, unionized jobs, that are actually going to build the resiliency we need in a place like California, that is going to have multiple layers of benefit.

And that’s a lot of why I think the Green New Deal is so exciting and we’re seeing it in these other spaces as well is that it’s marrying explicitly those two things. Economic and social benefit and social justice to climate because it actually does matter. And what we’ve seen time and time again is that people of color and low income communities are subjugated on behalf of higher income community members. So, I mean, what we see right now is that if for instance, higher income people are able to have private access to firefighting, that is absolutely not something that we need people to have the same access to these services and just say that racial equity is getting in the way is incredibly misguided in what we actually need to do to create resiliency.

DHARNA NOOR: Okay. We have to leave it there. Johanna Bozuwa, co-manager of the Climate and Energy Program at the Democracy Collaborative, thank you so much for being here. And we look forward to talking to you again soon.

JOHANNA BOZUWA: Thank you so much for having me, and thanks for covering this really important topic.