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The human toll of PG&E decision
For-profit utility is inflicting suffering
Jason Campbell

On the surface, it was just like every other town hall meeting about the potential PG&E power shutoff that could leave wide swaths of the Northern San Joaquin Valley dark for up to five days. 

But near the end of the presentations – the same ones that have been made multiple times throughout San Joaquin County over the course of the last few weeks – inside of the Lathrop Community Center this week, a woman stood up to ask a question that nobody on the panel could seem to give her an answer to. 

The woman, whose voice showed the strain of the situation that she finds herself in, spoke about how this week her ailing mother will be coming to stay with her a hospice patient – essentially living out her last days comfortably in the loving embrace of family members – and how she was now scrambling to do everything in her power to make sure that she could keep her as comfortable as possible. 

That will be difficult, she said, without electricity since the heat exacerbates her condition and makes it difficult for her to breathe. The family is scrambling to make arrangements for portable power generation, the cost of installing a whole-house generator is well out of the family’s budget.

What, she asked, is she supposed to do?

Now, I can’t necessarily fault the people on the panel for giving her the answer that they did – they tried to the best of their ability to provide ideas, like renting or borrowing a generator and buying a room air conditioner that could keep the temperature at a reasonable level. Lathrop Manteca Fire Chief Gene Neely tried to give as factual of an answer as he could given the circumstances. San Joaquin County Supervisor Tom Patti gave a short but hopeful response to her inquiry that there were things that could be done. 

But sitting in that room I couldn’t help but feel my heart break for this woman who was only trying to do right by her mother amidst circumstances that are entirely out of her control. 

It would have been nice if PG&E didn’t defer the maintenance on their aging transmission lines and allow towers to remain standing more than three decades after they’ve reached their end of life. It would have been nice if the company that can pay millions of dollars in bonuses to its executives would have prioritized the sort of system upgrades that they’re now flaunting as some sort of sign that they’re doing right by their customers, as if entire Northern California communities weren’t destroyed last summer.

But for tens of thousands of PG&E customers across the state now know, those things didn’t happen, and the company is now playing catchup on years of repairs and inspections that they absolutely had the money to carry out long before this scenario became a reality. 

On one hand, this woman’s story is just but one of many hardships that people are going to have to face if the powers that be in San Francisco decide that they have to flip the switch and leave their customers without the one that everybody depends on but nobody thinks about until it isn’t there. But if we look at these individual stories themselves, and the weight of uncertainty that this situation brings, the full-scope of the fear that many Californians are now living with becomes a living nightmare that will be the new normal in California until those upgrades are done and the system is modernized the way that it should have been years ago.

I have to give Patti credit for hosting the town hall meetings across his district and the wider county in order to get the word out about the preparation and planning that needs to happen in order to keep people safe. But I do disagree with his prompt before two of these meetings that I attended this past week where he asked people not to vent about things that the PG&E representative in attendance couldn’t control, and instead focus their questions and their inquiry around the preparations that need to happen. 

Yes, people need to be ready, and people need to be informed. But these are people that are pissed that a company that they have been paying large amounts of money to without any alternative for years weren’t good stewards of that money and didn’t do right by the very customers that they claim they exist to serve. 

So around Christmastime when we’re finally out of the woods on the 2019 fire season – Southern California was ablaze in December as recently as 2017 – I believe that our elected officials need to take a look at potential alternatives to the investor-owned utility model that has been used in the Golden State for more than a century. As long as profit remains a motivating factor and a fiduciary responsibility to shareholders trumps the safety of the residents of this state, I don’t personally believe that companies like PG&E should be able to maintain the virtual monopoly that they have. As somebody aptly stated at the CPUC rate hike meeting in Stockton this week, public utilities should be owned by the public, and as long as neighborhoods are exploding and entire communities are being wiped out – and now that people are living in fear that they’re going to watch the ones they love suffer a slow death – the conversation about how we can do better is something that needs to be had, and it needs to start at the local level. 

The fact that PG&E spends twice as much on lobbying and political donations as their similarly-sized IOU counterparts in Southern California shouldn’t be lost on anybody at this point, and while I admit that the company does good things by donating money and resources to the communities that they serve, I have to question whether those checks are actually worth it in the grand scheme of things.

California deserves better than this. 

That woman who just welcomed her mother back home today deserves better than this. 

And until these conversations are had, we’re all going to be waiting for the other shoe to drop – and the psychological toll of that is mounting more and more every day. 

To contact reporter Jason Campbell email or call 209.249.3544.