By Dov Salkoff
I am in a strange stage of my life. I am unemployed with a Ph.D. in neuroscience, living in my mother’s house. Since moving to Davis, I became more involved with political activism, most of all climate change. I am now driven, every day, by the conviction that there is something fundamentally wrong with this world, and people like me are in a good position to be part of the movement to fix it.
I’ve heard a lot of ideas from Davisites on how to combat climate change, and there is a clear pattern. Electric cars, solar panels, “going vegan” and biking to work peak enthusiasm as ways to reduce emissions, but there is a fatal flaw in these solutions. They leave out the poor and working class. In a survey of eight counties in the Sacramento region, 37% of respondents said they couldn’t afford making personal changes to reduce their environmental impact.
Electric cars are prohibitively expensive, tenants have no control over installing solar panels, vegan options are costly and not widely available, and the long commute makes biking impossible for people who are affected by the housing crisis. Individualistic solutions also miss the larger picture. Universal veganism would reduce emissions by 15%, but a whopping 71% of global emissions are produced by just 100 companies. Solutions that address societal needs, such as public transportation, affordable housing, and energy democracy will make decarbonization available to everyone.
Energy democracy was on my mind when I read that PG&E was found responsible for the fire that burned down Paradise and killed 86 people. Just this month in Davis, PG&E took over an hour to shut off power in a small fire that could have been much worse. Disasters caused by PG&E violations of state codes seem to be occurring more frequently.
After owing tens of billions of dollars in liabilities, the company has filed for bankruptcy a second time since 2001. In a move many see as pandering to PG&E’s interests, the California Public Utilities Commission approved a $6 billion loan in a so-called emergency meeting, without giving ratepayers sufficient notice, and without stipulating how PG&E would pay back those loans in 2 to 3 years. Fears were confirmed when PG&E announced it will increase utility rates by $22 a month this year. In other words, ratepayers will pay for the cost of PG&E negligence.
I spoke with Carol Dyer, a local climate activist with Mothers Out Front and a victim of Camp Fire. “It feels like it doesn’t matter as a survivor. I’m still going to pay for what they did.” She told me that she had supported herself since 19, and renting her own house was her biggest achievement. “It’s all gone. The worst is losing the sentimental stuff. I had two gifts from my grandmother who is now passed.” Neither she nor friends who were also fire victims have heard anything about compensation.
To create a more just world, energy needs to meet three conditions. First, it needs to be affordable regardless of income. Second, energy needs to be decarbonized as quickly as possible in order to avoid catastrophic climate change predicted by the IPCC report. Lastly, municipalities and communities should have control of energy systems in order to prioritize local needs and create a more robust grid. PG&E has failed us on all accounts. It is time we stop pretending that a corporation, whose first responsibility is to maximize shareholder profit, can provide safe, affordable energy for all.
Progressive organizations as well as the ex-president of the CPUC are calling for a public buyout of PG&E. This would have immediate effects: the $1-2 billion per year PG&E currently makes in profit (before the fires) could be reinvested into making the utility safer and more reliable, creating thousands of well-paying jobs in the process. Existing workers would keep their contracts and simply switch employers. A public buyout would also make it easier for municipalities and local communities to set their own priorities for grid updates, for example, decide whether resources should be used to bury power lines or build a renewable microgrid.
Millions of ratepayers and fire victims are paying for the cost of PG&E mismanagement, so why shouldn’t they have a voice in what happens next? We need to act soon. We cannot wait for another catastrophic fire, a power outage during a heatwave, or for PG&E to go under and re-emerge as another for-profit energy corporation poised to make the same mistakes.
California needs to buy out PG&E, upgrade the grid, bury power lines and create good, unionized jobs in the process. The next president of the CPUC appointed by Gov. Newsom should be prepared for this transition. Citizens can get involved by attending the upcoming CPUC meetings to express their concerns.
— Dov Salkoff is a Davis resident. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org for transportation to the July 17 CPUC meeting.
This article first appeared in the Davis Enterprise; reprinted with permission of the author.