Out of the smoldering ashes of the Kincade wildfire and after the days of darkness from the massive PG&E power shut-offs, an all-embracing “war plan” about how we manage our power utilities, avoid wildfires, harden our telecommunications systems and avoid unnecessary costs must be established post haste.

Rollie Atkinson Column Photo

Rollie Atkinson

We need a radical transformation in the form of a 21st century public utility that is driven by a culture of for-community and not for-profit. This utility should encompass not just a replacement of PG&E, but should also include our existing network of firefighting and prevention services and workforce. This multi-agency and shared powers organization should be linked by a public infrastructure and grid of communications systems, shared missions and be powered by local or community control. Public safety and reliable electricity services will be the core missions but they must also be guided by efforts to fight climate change, operate with full transparency and improve consumer rights.

There will be more seasons of wildfire threats and disasters. Life in Northern California has forever changed from the impacts of climate change. But we do not have to accept the massive power outages, evacuations and lack of communications. We do not have to accept what PG&E and others are calling a “new normal.”

We are not necessarily calling for an outright takeover or replacement of PG&E, but we must not rule this out, either. Gov. Gavin Newsom has created a “strike team” to monitor and push the PG&E bankruptcy plan to resolution. There could be a huge advantage for a public takeover of the investor-owned utility through the bankruptcy court. The takeover cost will never be lower, and a settlement could require all fire victims be made whole, allocate billions of former PG&E assets for safety and infrastructure improvements and set aside funds for homeowners insurance. A for-community utility would spend more on safety, climate change reduction and less on shareholders profits, executive bonuses and expensive lobbyist contracts.

But a public takeover of such a large operation would come with many cautions and challenges. If taxpayers had already taken over PG&E before the Kincade fire, we would only have ourselves to pay for the billions of property destruction, business disruption and future insurance and utility rate increases. Such public takeovers in other parts of the country have taken decades of transition time and more than half have failed.

During the Kincaid fire there were 5,000 firefighters and 6,000 PG&E workers. What if they all worked for the same entity and shared the same central command, training and communication? What if we had year-round fire, safety and power crews working on vegetation management, infrastructure hardening, electric grid automation and energy conservation? This could look like a “super-sized” Community Choice Aggregation, akin to our Sonoma Clean Power.

We urge our elected officials to embrace this opportunity to move our energy grid, public safety and climate change policies into a 21st Century model. We don’t need more angry yelling at PG&E; we need bold innovations and visionary leadership. Our energy reliance and rates and our public safety should not be dictated only by the over-litigated outcomes of PG&E’s bankruptcy case due next June. Gov. Newsom’s “strike team” should be expanded in membership and scope. It should begin immediate and transparent reports, hearings and community outreach.

Maybe there should be a local Sonoma County-based version of our own “strike team.” Just for extra measure, let’s imagine a future Sonoma County without a PG&E. We have fire patrol cameras on our ridge tops now. Let’s connect them to a new network of cellular communications, global internet access and new power-generating micro-grids. We can plan our own power shut-offs and evacuation zones where safety concerns will replace profit motives. Let’s plan to do the very best we can. We should aim very high.

— Rollie Atkinson

 

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