Message To California’s Newsom: Blame Fires On Uncleared Fuel, Not The Utility Company – OpEd


As California fires rage, nobody is taking responsibility for the unlimited “fuel” for the fires. Rather than addressing ways to reduce the amount of “fuel” awaiting the next spark, homeless campfire, or lightning strike, California Governor Newsom’s solution is for more litigation and a reorganization of a utility company to prevent devastating wildfires.

It’s a shared responsibility of all parties as to why we’ve accumulated so much fuel for a fire and continue to allow its growth. Specifically, the Federal regulations forbid forest management, and builders continue to build wood tinder box homes adjacent to the Federal stockpile of “fuel” for any fires in the forest, and homeowners do very little to fireproof their homes sitting amongst all that “fuel” for the fire.

Obama-era forestry restructuring regulations from 2012 waylaid already established preventative maintenance measures that could have averted power outages and raging conflagrations resulting in the need for people to be relocated to safer grounds at the expense of the federal government.

Rather than taking responsibility for decades of policies that avoided safety precautions like careful and controlled burning, Governor Gavin Newsom is blaming PG&E for not stepping up to solve the mess caused by previous bad public and private management. How will forcing PG&E to shoulder the financial burden of preventing and cleaning up after California fires affect consumers, and reduce the fuel awaiting the next spark?

The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) sets the rates for consumers, NOT PG&E, that utility companies can charge their customers. Recently the CPUC granted the authority to all California utility companies to shut down services where it deems those services create a public hazard. In addition, Governor Newsom’s own government forces the company to buy expensive unstable, unreliable alternative electricity sources for billions more than cheap coal, nuclear power and natural gas.

Today, electric utility companies up and down the state have all implemented Public Safety Power Shutoff (PSPS) events, aka rolling blackouts, as a last line of defense against electric service disruption and possible massive wildfires to vulnerable communities caused by utility equipment. By definition: A PSPS is limited to necessary areas on risk assessment, and only when absolutely required to protect life and property.

Power companies have done everything they can to oblige with liberal policies from funneling billions of dollars into “renewable” wind and solar technology to shutting off power for millions of customers, severely cutting their bottom line. But they cannot be expected to fill the gap left behind by irresponsible leadership, especially when the money that they’ve lost due to California’s “progressive” energy policies could have been dedicated to fireproofing efforts and forest management.

California wants a modern grid to support the state’s goal of 100 percent renewable electricity but being unable to generate that electricity in-state, California already imports 29 percent of its electricity needs from other states. The bad news is that imported electricity comes at higher costs and those costs are being borne by residents and businesses alike. California households are already paying 50 percent more, and industrial users are paying more than double the national average for electricity.

Imported electricity from other states will be growing exponentially over the coming years as California will be shutting down its last zero emission nuclear generating plant at Diablo Canyon and closing three natural gas power plants in Southern California. These in-state closures will most likely be resulting in exponentially increases in the cost of electricity in the years ahead.

Governor Newsom’s is proud of his Wildfire Liability Bill AB 1054 that requires rate payers, yes you the public, to pay $10.5 billion into a new fund that utilities could access if a fire caused by their equipment resulted in more than $1 billion in property damage! The State of California is developing the blueprint for a transformed utility. Consistent with AB 1054, PG&E must incorporate that blueprint into its bankruptcy plan. Its all about money for lawsuits, with no need to reduce any of the fuel that feeds the fires.

The bankruptcy judge overseeing PG&E’s perilous condition after paying out billions of dollars in claims on wildfires of the past few years, has been treating the utility like it is a criminal enterprise being run by the mafia.  Instead of creating rulings that would allow them to extricate themselves from Chapter 11, Bankruptcy Judge Dennis Montali has been more interested in tacking additional claims costs on PG&E than solving their financial problems.

PG&E safely maintains approximately 81,000 miles of overhead distribution lines and approximately 26,000 miles of underground distribution lines across its service area.  PG&E’s electric transmission system is about 18,000 miles, the majority of which are overhead lines. Newer developments tend to have underground power, but at a cost of up to $3 million dollars a mile to convert overhead to underground distribution, the cost to go underground for 81,000 miles would be almost $250 BILLION (Yes, that’s a “B”)!

For an administration trying to shirk blame, a big corporation makes the perfect scapegoat. But forcing our energy companies to try to make up for bad public and private policies will increase costs for everyone, pushing all Californians closer into poverty and homelessness, all while shutting down power lines, cutting access for millions.

It’s no wonder PG&E is bankrupt. If our current leadership has its way, the rest of the state will soon follow as the stockpile of fuel keeps growing to fuel that next fire.

Ronald Stein

Ronald Stein, Founder and Ambassador for Energy & Infrastructure of PTS Advance, headquartered in Irvine, California.

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