A state takeover of PG&E is not only desirable, it is a social and economic necessity. A publicly-owned PG&E offers the surest path to serving the interests of Californians, not Wall Street.
As PG&E has demonstrated time and again, private ownership of the power grid is literally fatal for California’s residents. After PG&E’s negligence caused the Campfire, which killed 85 people and was the most expensive natural disaster in the world in 2018, PG&E was forced into bankruptcy. But that process resulted only in superficial changes and a utility that continues to prioritize profits and Wall Street investors.
A for-profit PG&E pays out exorbitant executive bonuses — in just one example, the CEO in charge during the Campfire received a $2.5 Million severance payment. At the same time, PG&E shuts off hundreds of thousands of people’s electricity every year (312,000 in 2016!) for inability to pay ever-increasing rates. Moreover, too much of our electricity continues to be generated by dirty, polluting power plants located in the poorest and most oppressed communities. We demand a better way — one that treats the lives of Californians as sacred and our forests as vital to rural life. One that produces clean, reliable, and affordable energy to distribute in an equitable way. In order to urgently meet the challenges posed by climate change while ensuring the safety and high quality of life for California’s residents, our electricity generation, transmission, and distribution must be state owned and community controlled — not subject to the profit motive or the whims of the market.
A public takeover is only a beginning point to democratize our utility. Oversight and transparency are critical to translate our democratic demands into a more just and sustainable power system. The current Public Utilities Commission (PUC) has shown that it is structurally unable to effectively regulate PG&E, treating PG&E like a business partner, rather than a repeat offender. At the same time, independent audits of the PUC have found it to lack, “consistency, focus, organization, depth and rigor, adequate record keeping, clear expectations and follow-through in utility inspection practices.” Only the following will make public ownership truly accountable: 1) creation of a democratically elected (not appointed) regulatory body to enforce public safety, monitor environmental impact, and investigate corruption; and 2) formal democratic structures for community decision-making and municipal oversight as well as democratic worker management.
State ownership offers the best path forward to achieving a public vision that doesn’t leave less organized communities behind. Only a state-wide political constituency can make transformative demands on such a large producer and distributor of electricity. Exclusive reliance on smaller or municipalized utilities would push urban poor and rural communities to depend on their already diminished resources. Likewise, energy cooperatives throughout the world have created islands of privilege, where wealthier communities have fared better. Such institutions, although initiated with well-meaning intentions, replicate the very harms we are fighting against. While we share the admirable vision of a decentralized energy future, democratic control of a state-owned PG&E is a first, necessary step that recognizes current systems of inequality and oppression. When controlled by communities and workers, a state-owned utility has the adequate scale and power to fight against privilege and deliver equity.
Our path to clean, affordable, and safe electricity lies only in full democratic state ownership. More specifically, a state-owned, community-controlled PG&E must:
- be maintained as a single transmission and distribution agency, not be broken up;
- cooperate with existing municipal and regional CCAs to provide electricity retail sales where they are established, as well as new CCAs that may emerge for other areas of PG&E territory;
- invest resources in frontline communities to promote resilience and equity in access to renewable energy resources. Specifically, it must provide free, renewable community energy access points at public and community locations like schools, libraries, and rec centers. Any necessary public safety power shutoffs should provide information about the nearest community energy center and ensure that disabled people with electricity needs are taken care of.
- be managed by a democratically elected board of trustees on a one-person, one-vote principle across its entire territory. This body will be charged with day-to-day leadership and implementation of policy;
- be regulated by an independent, democratically-elected (not appointed) oversight body, elected using public campaign financing, that is empowered to investigate corruption, ensure environmental and worker protections at all points of the generation, transmission, and distribution system, and administer any complaints and disputes between communities and PG&E;
- commit to full decarbonization (without offsets or other gimmicks) of its electricity generation and supply by 2030;
- develop formal democratic structures for community decision-making and municipal oversight, including consultations with indigenous nations, organizations, and tribes in PG&E’s territory to ensure native rights protection and learn from native techniques and technologies of forest management.
- ensure that, where transmission lines cross unceded tribal lands, the land is returned to its rightful owners and alternative routes are considered. Where no alternatives can be found, these transmission lines must be prioritized for undergrounding.
- incorporate democratic worker management and support the unionization rights of all workers, ensure public work contracts go to unionized work forces, pursue and adopt high wages, good benefits, and safe and fair working conditions for all workers. It must, in addition, incorporate workers into all operational decision-making, including budget making, to ensure public safety, worker safety, system reliability, and adequate investments in maintenance. Finally, the new utility must negotiate a union security clause and protect the existing pension and other agreements of existing PG&E employees;
- establish a progressive rate structure and end electricity shutoffs for inability to pay. The new utility must develop minimum payment plans that guarantee continuous utility service for households who cannot afford to meet their entire bill.
To achieve this vision, we must build the broadest community and worker mobilization, with strategies including but not limited to mutual aid for power shutoffs and wildfire smoke, public education, phone-banking ratepayers, public protest, coalition-building with unions, workers, and non-profit organizations, and coordinating with organizations across PG&E’s territory.
The progressive era in California saw people demand that a host of public services be taken under public regulatory control after widespread and ongoing abuses from the private electric, natural gas, telephone, and water companies. Today, after over 100 years of experimentation and tweaks with the regulation of these private monopolies, it’s time to take this effort further, urged along by the reality of the climate crisis. One that points to the root of the problem: private profit, ownership, and control of an essential public service. The changes we need for cleaner, safe, and affordable energy in a public-owned power grid will only come through struggle and mobilization. It’s time to bring the people into power and power to the people.