California mayors back plan to make PG&E a cooperative
Frustrated with wildfires and intentional blackouts caused by Pacific Gas & Electric, more than two dozen California mayors and county leaders are calling for a customer-owned power company to replace the giant utility.
In a letter delivered Tuesday to the California Public Utilities Commission, the local officials — including the mayors of Petaluma, Windsor, Sonoma and Cotati — embraced a proposal by Mayor Sam Liccardo of San Jose to create a cooperative that would use their collective resources to take over the utility.
PG&E, which filed for bankruptcy protection in January after accumulating an estimated $30 billion in liabilities from wildfires caused by its equipment, is widely expected to emerge with a different structure. Any bankruptcy plan requiring a rate increase is subject to approval by the utilities commission.
“The commission must do more than approve a plan — any plan — merely so that the bankruptcy can be concluded,” the government officials stated in the letter. “This situation requires a full and comprehensive effort to chart a sustainable course for the future of PG&E, one that will serve the interests of its customers, and position the company to meet the challenges we will face from a changing climate.”
PG&E said it was aware of proposals to change the utility to a customer-owned or public power utility but said it expected to emerge from bankruptcy as a strong and effective company.
“We remain firmly convinced that a government or customer takeover is not the optimal solution that will address the challenges and serve the long-run interests of all customers in the communities we serve,” Jennifer Robison, a PG&E spokeswoman, said in an email.
Sonoma Mayor Amy Harrington, who signed the letter, said the move could boost spending on improving PG&E’s technology toward a goal of generally “not setting things on fire.
“Just economically, if the profits were not going into huge salaries and dividends but were being invested into lower rates and improvements to infrastructure, that would improve the system,” she said, such as “a massive program of undergrounding wires, for one.”
Cotati Mayor John Dell’Osso said his decision to sign the letter wasn’t out of bad feelings related to PG&E’s recent widespread power outages but was motivated by a desire to answer questions about PG&E’s ability to improve its systems.
“It wasn’t something out of angst, that’s not why I’m doing it,” he said. “I just think it’s really time that we have a serious discussion.”
Calls for alternatives to PG&E’s existing structure have grown louder over the last month, after the utility intentionally blacked out millions of customers — some without warning — to prevent wildfires as fierce winds swept through Northern and Central California, elevating the fire hazard in hot, dry conditions. Some customers lost power for as long as a week during multiple blackouts.
Despite the blackout strategy, PG&E’s equipment has been identified as the possible cause of at least five different wildfires last month, including the Kincade fire, which has burned nearly 80,000 acres in the Sonoma County wine region and damaged or destroyed more than 400 structures.
“There’s a strong response among the local leaders that I speak with that their communities are fed up,” Liccardo said. “They believe PG&E needs to be transformed into a company that is more responsive and more responsible.”