A few weeks ago, I joined several other state legislators on a tour of Paradise, where last year the Camp Fire killed 85 people and caused almost $7 billion in damage. Walking past burned-out cars, shopping centers and homes, I could only imagine the terror people felt as everything around them burned. Sparking PG&E power lines and a damaged pole have been blamed for the fire. In the end, the company could be held liable for the disaster, just as they were in the cases of 17 other fires in 2017.
Now comes the news that for the second time in 20 years, California’s largest utility has filed for bankruptcy. Over the next few years, PG&E and a judge will hash out the details. It’s my hope that every last fire victim gets what is owed to them as the process plays out. PG&E must take this opportunity to address the numerous safety issues brought to light by a district court judge thus far.
PG&E’s bankruptcy is one symptom of a major breakdown in the decisions made by generations of politicians. Hopefully, it will mark the beginning of a more realistic discussion about our out-of-control forests and the future reliability of affordable electricity. It’s a moment of reckoning that must not be ignored by policy makers in California.
California and our utility providers must do better at forest management. PG&E is already working to clear 375,000 trees near their transmission lines — not anywhere close to the 100 million trees a judge has demanded they remove. With power lines crisscrossing the mountains, the continued threat of major wildfires is real. PG&E is not alone in dealing with this. Other utilities recently had their credit ratings downgraded because of the potential for future catastrophic fires.
Healthy forests ensure greater safety for rural residents, less liability for utility providers and lower power bills for the rest of us. Fifty years ago, sustainable logging on state and federal lands gave us managed, healthy forests with less than 100 trees per acre. Since then, environmental laws halted sustainable logging in California and gave us forests with tangled underbrush and 400-500 trees per acre, with some forests even having more than 1,000 trees per acre.
In well-managed forests, fires don’t burn as hot and fast. Safer forests and affordable energy go hand-in-hand. It’s no secret that the PG&E bankruptcy will include a hike in our utility rates. PG&E has even said rates could as much as quintuple. It already costs much more for Californians to keep the lights on than it does for residents of other states. While we manage our power bills by adjusting our thermostats, people living in nearby states heat and cool their homes without dreading their next bill.
It’s so much more expensive here because of bad decisions made by the Legislature. Lawmakers have passed legislation creating two kinds of energy sources — those deemed morally acceptable like wind and solar, and those that are not, like natural gas and hydroelectric power. The 2045 renewable energy mandates passed in 2018 moves California closer to outlawing natural gas. There’s no doubt that renewables have an important role to play in the energy security of our state, but reliance solely on renewables while rejecting less costly sources of energy is foolish.
Californians expect that the lights will come on with a flick of the switch. Laws passed in Sacramento have had a serious impact on reliable, affordable power, and experts say our grid is becoming increasingly unreliable. Every day, engineers working to keep the aging system online perform a delicate balancing act.
As the sun goes down and millions of families get home, they turn on the TV and prepare dinner. At the same time we lose about 13,000 megawatts of solar energy. To make up for that daily dropoff, the grid is fed by other resources like natural gas and hydroelectric power — the same sources the Legislature prefers not to use.
The Legislature continues to demand that utilities get more and more of their electricity from politically chosen forms of energy. By rejecting all others, they increase the costs of keeping the lights on and make our grid less reliable. In this tug of war, customers lose every time.
Jim Patterson, R-Fresno, represents the 23rd District in the state Assembly. He is vice chair of the Assembly Utilities and Energy Committee.