Recent California news cycles have thoroughly covered how the top utility company of the state, Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) has been preemptively shutting power off to millions of homes in an attempt to reduce fire risks. If you’ve been following the news, you’ll also know that half of California is currently on fire. This is due to a number of factors, not the least of which is climate change, but a number of fingers are being pointed at PG&E, and for good reason.
History of Mismanagement
PG&E is privately owned by the PG&E Corporation, despite being overseen by the California Public Utilities Commission. The company declared bankruptcy in January of 2019, the second time in two decades. Their prior bankruptcy scandal was due to a lack of statewide utility regulations and lasted between 2001 and 2004.
The most recent PG&E bankruptcy can be filed up to mismanagement. The past two decades have seen the company regularly neglect necessary maintenance in favor of providing benefits to company executives and shareholders. The failure to maintain power and gas lines has led to the company being held responsible for multiple fires, including the devastating Camp Fire in 2018.
Much of California’s electric grid is outdated, with power lines that aren’t fire-insulated and trees that need to be removed. Routine fixes can be dangerous, with an average of about 400 utility workers getting electrocuted every year in America. Of course, the best way to avoid being injured by old power lines is to install safer replacements. These replacements not only protect workers, but also those living nearby.
Part of the routine maintenance also includes trimming and removing trees that are interfering with power lines, as they create a huge fire risk, especially in dry and windy areas (i.e. most of California).
After the Camp Fire of 2018 and its following lawsuits, PG&E was ordered to take responsibility for its necessary maintenance, including removing over 100 million trees that had become risks. PG&E, which was already preparing for bankruptcy, considered it more than its resources could handle to do so.
Our Current Situation
This all leads us to today. Wine country is on fire again, Vallejo is looking like a scene Dante could only dream of, and pretty much all of Southern California is at high risk. While cause cannot be determined until after the fires are controlled, the footage from the start of the Kincade Fire is alleged to show PG&E’s responsibility. Despite the mass power outages, the power station near Sonoma had not been shut off due to the winds not being considered high-risk enough. Unfortunately, that station was suspected to have a serious default, which is thought to have caused the fire.
The Kincade fire has now displaced thousands of families, burned over 66,000 acres, and has destroyed over 40 homes.
These fires are causing lasting damage, and are becoming more common. While PG&Es mismanagement can’t be considered the sole factor in their increasing frequency, the company needs to see actual consequences for its damage to the state’s infrastructure.