It’s been a while but your humble progressive writer is back at a California Democratic Party convention, this time in Long Beach. And the first night, one of the main topics of conversation was what to do about PG&E.
It may be harder to see from a bigger city but the recent power cuts have been a devastating blow to large swaths of the state already reeling from a lack of jobs, a lack of infrastructure, and rising inequality. PG&E’s criminal negligence led to wildfires that have devastated communities, wrecked economies, and now are destroying the ability of communities across the state to remain part of a modern society.
At the rural caucus meeting – representing the majority of California’s counties – anger at PG&E was palpable. Two elected officials from El Dorado County reported how the local water district had to bring in 150 generators just to ensure households and businesses had running water during the recent planned power cuts.
An ER doctor from the Sierra foothills described their concerns about keeping the lights on – especially in the event of another mass casualty fire incident caused by PG&E’s power lines.
Lieutenant Governor Eleni Kounalakis, whose 2018 victory was due in part to assiduous campaigning in and courting of rural California, spoke directly to these concerns and pledged “No mercy for PG&E!”
And there was loud applause for insisting candidates as well as the state party refusing any more contributions from PG&E.
So it’s clear everyone is ready to do something about PG&E. But what that is still isn’t clear. And whether legislators in Sacramento and Governor Gavin Newsom are actually going to act is even less clear.
Few here seem to take Newsom’s “have Warren Buffett buy PG&E” plan seriously. There is much broader support for some kind of government takeover, but there also is a growing urban-rural divide over how exactly to do that.
But pressure is building. Society cannot function without electricity. And PG&E’s negligence has meant that delivering that electricity often risks causing wildfires that burn down whole communities – and as we saw in 2017, urban communities like Santa Rosa are just as much at risk.
There isn’t yet a clear or consensus proposal on how to end PG&E as we know it and turn it into a series of local public utility districts, governed by the people they serve and not pouring campaign contributions into politicians’ coffers to prevent regulation and accountability.
But there will need to be one. The public anger at PG&E is strong but will run into numerous roadblocks in a legislature that hasn’t yet shown a willingness to take on the investor class and bring electricity into public ownership. PG&E has provoked a crisis. California’s rank and file Democrats might have the numbers to help solve it. With a clear path and plan for a state takeover and how to administer the grid, they could make the difference in solving the crisis.