PG&E is a public utility company, meaning their rates are regulated by the government. About 10 years ago they tried a free floating price on energy, but the State of California and PG&E quickly found out, that you need energy supply competition in order to make it work. Having a fixed demand then being forced to pay whatever the energy suppliers demanded not only stupid, it was a form of theft. Before this failed experiment in capitalism was over PG&E was bankrupt and I lost a bundle of my retirement money in their stock.
So, now we are about to embark on a class action lawsuit that will in theory, force this utility company to pay for the entire Camp Fire losses and those in Napa from last year. Both of these monster fires are being blamed on downed power lines. But, it’s still not entirely clear that this was truly the proximate cause of ignition. Yes, PG&E should be held responsible for gross negligence. We can agree on that, but to what degree? This is where we start to estimate the responsibilities that are involved in each incident. More on this in a moment.
The gas pipe line explosion in San Bruno is a reasonable example when you have deferred maintenance. That was a 100% preventable incident therefore the award is not reduced by any outside contributory factors. But, what about this Camp Fire power lines that allegedly failed on these big transmission towers? Should PG&E be expected to inspect every line, every connection, every spark, whenever the wind blows or if there’s a blip on the power gauge? And if they are to be 100% responsible should something go wrong, who really pays? I think you know who pays…. we do. PG&E will ask for rate increases to the PUC whenever overhead costs, especially costs driven by safety concerns or lawsuits, make it necessary to do so. If they didn’t get some relief via a rate increase they would be out of business by tomorrow. Then where do you get your power and natural gas?
There is a Latin saying, “Vernum anim” As in, “but for…” a long, dry, draught there would have been no fire from a downed line. But for…. high winds placing excessive stress on a couple there would have been no downed line. But for….the need to keep electrical rates down there was not enough inspectors to insure couplers would not wear out before they failed.
Does PG&E have a reasonable safety record and does it compare well with other state’s utilities? I believe it does. All utility companies will have downed lines for a myriad of reasons, but mostly it’s the weather. What happens next depends on what those lines fall on. In California, if a rural power line falls onto dry brush a fire is almost inevitable. Was this a 100% foreseeable event? No, of course not.
PG&E does its best to control transmission lines, but they can’t control the weather. And it appears we the public don’t like it when they turn off the power whenever winds gust. So they do whatever anyone else would do in the same situation, they do the best they can and they try to compensate people for any loss should an accident happen. But, who pays when a town burns? Were there any other factors that were beyond the control of PG&E that resulted in the fire spreading quickly? Absolutely and fingers can be pointed at many people now and they probably will be too. But, the really deep pockets are found at PG&E and as I write you know there are lawyers piling on sue them. That part is a shame and it’s going to cost all of us (except for the lawyers).