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PG&E’s greed brings NorCal to the abyss
Jason Campbell

By now it’s pretty widely known that there’s going to be a chance later this year that entire communities in California will go dark for up to a week at a time as Northern California’s largest power provider tries to stave off another disastrous wildfire.

Naturally, this produced widespread panic in residents who didn’t quite understand what PG&E was saying when they made the announcement in advance of Thursday’s regulatory meeting where the plan was ultimately approved to be put into practice, and it didn’t help matters than a blown transformer on Moffat Boulevard knocked out power to a portion of town on Wednesday and left residents wondering if they were already cutting off power intentionally. 

Talk about bad timing. 

On the surface, the move to make Manteca go dark makes sense. Just outside of Tracy sits the Tracy-Tesla PG&E facility that takes energy from high-power transmission lines and steps it down onto distribution lines that are fed into communities like Manteca where the power goes through a substation and then out onto the lines that carry it into homes. 

What’s interesting about the power grid is that by simply flipping a switch in Tracy, they can isolate the distribution of power that will ultimately make its way up into the foothills and the lower Sierra Nevada where most of the fire danger exists. 

But that doesn’t do any favors for the growing community of Manteca or any customer around it that gets its energy from the same distribution line. 

I’m not sure how many people remember the rolling brownouts of the summer more than 20 years ago when energy shortages forced widespread outages in the middle of the scorching Central Valley summer, but it wasn’t necessarily the most pleasant time to be living in a place that regularly boasts triple digit temperatures and occasionally doesn’t get very far below 90 degrees at 4 a.m. 

So, yeah – we have that to look forward to. 

But what is most frustrating about all of this is that it could have been prevented. I can’t for the life of me understand how a publicly-regulated company that has guaranteed profit built into its government-approved rate structure could let something like this happen. You would think that PG&E would have no problem routinely replacing rural power poles or trimming the trees nears its transmission lines that can cause fires with the amount of money that they charge their customers, and the constant rate increases that CPUC seems to rubber stamp any time they need something. 

Just recently the State of California gave PG&E the green light to go ahead and charge those very ratepayers to make up for the cost of the neglectful actions of the company, and for a whole host of reasons it was something that they absolutely had to do – not doing so could have led to the company becoming insolvent, and created a free-for-all in the energy market as the state scrambled to keep the lights on. 

That didn’t work so well for Gray Davis when PG&E’s famous “bottleneck” allowed vulture companies like Enron to gouge Californians and make hundreds of millions of dollars if not more. 

The problem, it seems to me, is that Northern California’s largest power provider has just gotten too big for its own good. If the record profits that the company rakes in isn’t enough for them to be able to maintain an aging system in the rural parts of the state that are burning at a record clip, perhaps it’s time for somebody else – or a lot of somebody else’s – to step in and pick up the slack. I had no doubt that the South San Joaquin Irrigation District was ahead of the curve when they decided to take on the energy giant. The David and Goliath analogy gets overused but having five farmers from the Central Valley picking a fight with a company that owns a number of private jets and operates out of a high-rise in Downtown San Francisco – and winning that fight – fits the mold perfectly. And now that people throughout Northern California are starting to see what greed on such a large scale does, they’re looking like geniuses for getting the ball rolling before anybody else had even conceived of doing so. 

I know people that work for PG&E. I know people that retired from PG&E. When I was growing up, I spent as much as time as I could at my friend’s house down the street because his father worked for PG&E and was always able to run the air conditioner much cooler than most people could thanks to his employee rebate – meaning that we could get a little shiver despite the fact that the pavement was melting outside. 

And I know that those people that work for PG&E are good, honest, hard-working individuals that are only doing their part to food on the table for their families and making sure that neighborhood kids like me don’t burn up in the scorching Central Valley heat. 

So, I don’t say this as somebody that is attacking those workers at all. What the executives in San Francisco should in no way be reflective of the people who work every day to make sure that the lights are on. When the storms hit, there are people from Manteca that spend weeks away from their families to try and restore power in parts of the state are often never visited let alone thought of, and those people deserve our respect. 

But at the same time, every other rate-paying Northern California resident should, in 2019, not have to worry about where they’re going to come up with the money for a generator, or where they going to take their family in the event that the city goes dark for an extended period of time. The logistics of something like that happening to a city of Manteca’s size is something that I don’t even want to comprehend. Sure, hospitals have back-up power supplies, but there are a lot of senior citizens in town that aren’t going do so well sweating in houses that are above 90 degrees. The same goes for young children and people with health conditions. 

Things never should have gotten to this point, and hopefully all of negative publicity will give SSJID the chance to make a reasonable purchase offer for the system that they’ve been trying to obtain for more than a decade.

I don’t know if having SSJID at the helm would change this outcome of this new development, but it wouldn’t be residents throwing good money after bad and knowing that nothing positive was going to come from it. 

Greed got us here, and hopefully sensible planning and a change of ownership sometime in the near future will get us out. 

To contact reporter Jason Campbell email or call 209.249.3544.