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CPUC ponders whether breaking up PG&E will help make us all safer
Dennis Wyatt

California Public Utilities Commission President Michael Picker wants to save PG&E. The South San Joaquin Irrigation District can help Picker.

Picker on Nov. 15 announced state regulators were expanding their inquiry into the safety practices of PG&E. The new territory to be explored covered how the for-profit is run and managed. It also will include whether the mega-utility should be broken up.

Picker’s epiphany that PG&E might be too big to safely serve 15 million people and roughly two thirds of California came after the utility’s latest B&B — blow-up and/or burn — incident in which customers lost their lives and entire towns disappeared. The Camp Fire is not an isolated incident. But it could become the waterloo for both PG&E and CPUC if steps aren’t taken to stop the roll out of even more devastating sequels.

SSJID’s odyssey of 15 plus years to use powers invested in it by the people of California via the state constitution to acquire a segment of the PG&E system to deliver retail power to customers in and around Manteca, Ripon, and Escalon at 15 percent below PG&E’s cost is still winding its way at snail speed through two courts.

Of the endless reasons PG&E’s former mouthpieces as well as its small standing army of lawyers  have tossed out as to why SSJID is incapable of running a retail power system one of them was whether they could safely maintain a retail distribution system.

PG&E stopped such arguments after they blew up a San Bruno neighborhood in September 2010 killing eight customers.

Since then — despite heightened scrutiny and pledges to better maintain their infrastructure — PG&E has scarred urban and rural landscape alike while pushing the body count of the number of customers they may have killed in less than a decade past the 100 mark.

Then there is the little detail of destroying the homes and businesses of nearby 20,000 other families.

If “PG&E is at your service”, as one of their older marketing lines went, then god help us if they decide to make life hell for their customers.

Proof that PG&E is too big which in turn threatens the safety, lives, and property of its customers can be found in PG&E’s frontline personnel. They know the score and are extremely competent but when concerns with safety and power lines are passed up the chain, safety and or customer service takes back seat to profitability.

Talk to area farmers if you want to understand the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde personality of PG&E. One almond grower that wanted to expand his hulling operation a few years back is a prime example. Understanding he was making a big investment that if it wasn’t up and running in time would cost him dearly as well as a good sense that the PG&E bureaucracy is about as nimble as a turtle in full traction, he made a request for new service more than two years in advance. He even sent in a sizable check that PG&E said it would hold until work was done to secure the work order.

Long story short, when the PG&E bureaucracy failed to deliver even with a two year plus advance notice and money in hand the farmer had to get a PG&E line worker to get half of the new huller up be running to avoid a financial bloodbath to connect it to part of his existing service. It was not protocol and the farmer still paid for the electricity he used. PG&E’s powers that be we’re not amused its frontline folks did what they did. That said the PG&E bureaucracy ended up taking close to three years after the initial application to extend power service the new huller.

This is far from an isolated case. Talk to small businessmen constructing new buildings or even the City of Manteca about how nimble PG&E isn’t when it comes to construction related work even with advance requests exceeding six months.

Much of the woes in construction service — as well as maintaining its power lines — started after deregulation. PG&E’s upper corporate team was looking for ways of sweetening their bonuses and pas their salaries given the CPUC rule that guaranteed them a 10.5 percent return or profit that is built into natural gas and electrical rates wasn’t enough to feed their greed.

They wanted to be like the rest of Wall Street and grab even higher profits. Forget the fact they had a guaranteed, steady profit flow made possible by government mandate. They wanted more. So they slashed construction centers and combined them into super centers to reduce personnel. When they closed the Stockton construction division those higher up the food chain were told it wouldn’t work by the rank and file but the profit driven occupants of PG&E’s executive suites did not listen. Long delays and chaos ensued as request for PG&E connections were extended by months and in some cases more than a year. By the time PG&E backed off on its streamlining the economic damage had already been done to its captive paying customers.

There are other electrical providers such as the Trinity Public Utilities District that have to contend with power lines running through heavily wooded or forested areas where people build homes under towering trees.

SSJID through its partnership with Oakdale Irrigation District via the Tri-Dam Project has more than 60 years of experience generating and delivering wholesale electricity. Safety has never been compromised for profit.

As far as accountability, you as a small potatoes customer that is apparently expandable cannot get an audience with Richard C. Kelly — the chairman of the PG&E board — to bend his ear about the lack of maintenance expenditures. Nor can you vote to remove him or his other board colleagues when Election Day rolls around if they leave you with the impression that PG&E stands for Profits, Greed, and Electricity first and foremost.

There is little doubt PG&E can use the cash they’d get in the sale of the system serving Manteca, Ripon, and Escalon to SSJID. They could use it to improve power line safety elsewhere, help cover their endless lawsuits or keep cutting checks for their small army of lawyers.

It is a far better solution than the CPUC jacking up PG&E rates non-stop to cover PG&E costs related to its less than stellar safety and line maintenance or going to the California Legislature in search of a bailout.