I write this thank-you note because no corporation has done more than you to awaken the public to the challenges California faces, and it’s high time we acknowledged the enormity of your civic contribution.
Thank you, first, for your transparency. While some rage at you for shutting off power to millions, I marveled at how your action clearly signaled that your dangerous power infrastructure can cause a deadly wildfire disaster anywhere and at any time—and that you can’t stop it.
Thank you for your courage in letting the public know that you did not base your decisions to impose outages on any standards for what represents unacceptable danger from power lines— because you have no real standards. Thank you, too, for not revealing any actual data on whether shutoffs—by making it harder for local emergency crews to alert people about dangers—are more dangerous than fires. I also appreciated how you directed people to your website even when the website was down because I enjoy farce.
You have sent a crystal-clear message: It is not you, but we Californians who are responsible for keeping the power on during emergencies—at any other time you feel like turning the lights off. In this state of warming weather, persistent drought, and millions of dead and combustible trees, this is good information to have.
I must congratulate you, too, on your cultural impact; you’re bringing back candlelight, which is beautiful. And I also appreciated the San Francisco Chronicle report about your top having dinner at a Sonoma winery as you cut power. Both messages were loud and clear: First, never let calamity stop you from patronizing California businesses. Second: be sure to rely on generators, like that winery does.
All of your smaller messages add up to a bigger, public-spirited one: that Californians really need to engage on questions of energy that we prefer to ignore.
We’re finally paying attention not only to your total failure to maintain your power lines, but also to the extortionate prices we pay for electricity—so high that they contribute to our nation-leading poverty and the outflow of manufacturers.
In addition, you’ve shined a spotlight, if I can call it that, on the folly of state bailouts for utilities. Last year, the legislature bailed you out by permitting you to borrow from the state to cover fire damage costs, and pay the bonds back using ratepayer funds. Within months, you went and declared a bankruptcy so you could avoid paying the real costs of those damages. Then this year, you got the governor and legislature to set up a $21 billion fund to pay future fire victims’ claims—but within months, you made a statewide joke of that with your massive outages to protect yourself from more fire claims.
In the process, you’ve exposed our politicians as powerless to stop you. More profoundly, you’ve revealed the hollowness of California’s supposed climate leadership. Our state leaders have created all sorts of formulas to reduce greenhouse gases on a schedule, but they’ve done little planning, and less managing, of the impacts in Californians’ lives. What that means is that, by default, they’re closely tied to you
Underneath all of this is a larger truth: Your failures have shown that California doesn’t face just blackouts but a multi-faceted crisis that involves electricity, gas, land use, housing, climate change, and democracy itself. You have shown us that we need to rethink how we maintain our plants and our structures, where we live, how we live, and how we pay and insure and govern all of it.
To that end, you’ve selflessly opened up people’s minds to alternatives. Your blackouts were a multibillion-dollar advertisement for roof-top solar, wind generation, the micro-grid, and other methods for procuring electricity outside investor-owned utilities.
You’ve also created momentum in Sacramento for splitting you up, or making it easier for more municipalities to set up their own publicly owned utilities. There’s even talk of a full state takeover of electricity. No other California company, with the possible exception of Wells Fargo, has so relentlessly made the case for its own demise.
In these polarized times, you have unified us, in hostility to you. So in return for my thanks, I ask only this: Please don’t change. Don’t clean up your act. Because we Californians need you, just the way you are, if we are ever going to come together and build a new system to replace you.
Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.