Brynne Kennedy: Drain the power system swamp
PG&E has spent more than $83 million on political campaigns over the last 26 years according to FollowTheMoney.org —not including contributions from individual company executives.
It has given generously to politicians in both parties, including tens of thousands of dollars to incumbent Rep. Tom McClintock. And in the last 16 years, it’s spent an additional $35 million on lobbying, growing from just nine lobbyists to an army of 35.
This same period has seen rolling blackouts, the San Bruno Pipeline explosion, six felony convictions, Santa Rosa, Paradise, constant rate hikes, over 100 fatalities, bankruptcy, days long power shutoffs and now Kincaid.
All the while, the company has spent millions more on public relations, executive bonuses and shareholder dividends — and has not had a federal income tax bill in 10 years.
Yet PG&E’s own internal documents acknowledge that arguably the most important part of its business — northern California’s power grid and distribution system — has effectively outlived its design life and its components now average 68 years old.
Sixty eight years ago, California had just 11 million people. Today, it must safely and reliably deliver power to 40 million. While changes in our climate and federal and state wildland management policies have no doubt exacerbated wildfire risks, there’s little doubt that a more modern and resilient energy infrastructure is vital to combat these threats.
To be fair, PG&E is hardly the first business accused of prioritizing short-term shareholder gain over the long-term needs of customers. But in the heavily regulated utility business, they needed help from politicians. It appears they’ve gotten what they paid for.
The decades-long failure to properly maintain and modernize our power delivery system has spanned Republican and Democratic administrations alike.
As California continues to grow, the consequence of this inaction is only becoming more costly. And with housing demands extending new development further outside major cities, a 70-year-old power infrastructure that risks sparking a blaze every time the wind blows is rendering entire neighborhoods uninsurable.
To solve a problem this many years in the making, there are no silver bullets. We need land use reforms to mitigate risks and encourage more aggressive forest management. We need tax incentives that encourage more business investment in modern energy infrastructure, and to help homeowners manage vegetation, harden homes and better access alternative power technologies. And we must reform the insurance industry to create more market options, promote best practices for homeowners and ensure companies are honoring their promises to policy holders. This won’t happen overnight. But the work must begin now.
We also need to have an honest conversation about the future of California’s power distribution system. Not just about whether our investor-owned utilities are too big to fail, but whether they are too far behind to catch up. Some believe governments and utilities must come together on a “Marshall plan” to modernize our electrical infrastructure, dramatically expand micro grids and invest in other emerging technologies. Still others believe that cities, regional collaboratives and private entities should introduce the kind of competition that can produce better management outcomes and new innovations in the utility marketplace. All options should be on the table.
With difficult work and important decisions ahead, we need to be mindful of not only the goals of more resilient and cost-effective power distribution — but the failures that got us here. We need our leaders to get past looking only to PG&E for answers, or being beholden to them for campaign contributions.
Californians are losing their lives and homes. Millions more are being displaced, or have had their neighborhoods, businesses and life-saving medical equipment rendered powerless. With each passing day, the costs of fixing the inadequate infrastructure at the heart of the matter only grow.
This is a crisis for our community and our state. It is not a time for partisanship or hollow outrage that kicks the can down the road. Instead, this must be a time of substantive action and real accountability both for our electricity providers and elected officials at every level of government.
Brynne Kennedy, who lives in Roseville, is a businesswoman and candidate for Congress in California’s 4th District. Learn more at http://www.brynneforcongress.com.