Gov. Gavin Newsom ripped the Pacific Gas & Electric Co. (PG&E) last week, calling the power shutdown that affected hundreds of thousands of Californians unacceptable.
“This is not a climate change story as much as a story about greed and mismanagement over the course of decades,” he said Thursday, while power was still out to hundreds of thousands of Californians. “Neglect, a desire to advance not public safety but profits.”
The question is what, if anything, is the governor going to do about it.
Last May, we said that the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection’s confirmation that PG&E caused the Camp Fire — the deadliest and most destructive fire in California history — bolstered the case for Newsom to replace or break up the felonious utility. But he did neither.
So the state may be stuck with PG&E as the utility emerges from bankruptcy, likely controlled by a hedge fund. The options are limited — for now.
For the short term, the governor should consider changing PG&E’s incentive structure to a performance-based model. The current cost-of-service approach, guaranteeing PG&E a lucrative rate of return on capital investments, has failed at forcing the utility to put a premium on safety.
The governor needs to think long-term and assure Californians of more reliable power providers. That means establishing microgrids in communities throughout California. That means maximizing the use of solar and wind power to generate power closer to homes and businesses throughout the region, thereby reducing the risk of electricity shutdowns.
That work must begin now.
The alternative is saddling future generations with an outdated system that is an embarrassment to a region that prides itself on innovation.
PG&E’s aging infrastructure has to go. Relying on massive power plants fired by fossil fuels is the technological equivalent of making phone calls with a rotary-dial phone. Keeping electrical lines strung over thousands of miles of forests and tinder-dry brush invites continued catastrophe — especially as the impact of climate change grows.
The power system of the future needs to walk hand-in-hand with the state’s clean energy goals.
The governor should provide incentives for the further development of community choice aggregators (CCAs), which allow local governments to form their own energy providers and act independently from utilities such as PG&E. A half-dozen CCAs are already operating or on the verge of offering energy alternatives in the Bay Area.
CCAs aren’t perfect. But they carry the capacity to install the microgrids that can serve as a power source for cities when utilities shut off power during adverse weather conditions.
California got about 35 percent of its power from renewable energy sources in 2018, according to the state’s Energy Commission. The state has set a target of 60 percent by 2030, and eventually 100 percent clean energy.
Those goals and PG&E’s failures make clear that Newsom needs to transform how power is delivered throughout Northern California.
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