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Is PG&E to blame for the CA wildfires?

A frenzy of finger-pointing after the flames

“I have a message for PG&E,” California Governor Gavin Newsom tweeted last month. “Your years and years of greed. Years and years of mismanagement. Years and years of putting shareholders over people. Are OVER."

Aged and poorly maintained power lines are indeed increasingly susceptible in high wind events. But PG&E is under a tangled thread of pressures: investors, ratepayer advocacy groups, and regulators. As an investor-owned utility, PG&E maximizes value for shareholders by investing in new energy development, not maintaining infrastructure. And the company is regulated by both state and federal bodies, which are primarily focused on keeping costs low.

Fixing the grid is going to take a lot. PG&E, formed almost 115 years ago, is responsible for electric and natural gas services in a 70,000-square-mile-area. But we see a window of opportunity: as a result of declaring bankruptcy this year, PG&E will undergo reorganization. Now is the time to focus on grid resilience and maintenance.

Corporate greed isn't the problem. Here's what is >>>

In case you missed it

Part One in our fire series: the real causes

The California fires are getting worse. A 2019 study showed that the annual area burned by wildfires in California has increased by 500% since the 1970s. But there's a more proximate cause than climate change or faulty power lines: human development in fire-prone areas, and, paradoxically, a long history of successful fire suppression — which enables dense vegetation in dry areas, increasing fire risk.

So what are we to do? A critical solution may be as necessary as it is unpopular: stricter rules on housing near wildland and stricter vegetation controls.

How to fight fire with fire >>>
Lauren Anderson on the problem with simplifying complexity
I was taken aback by the public backlash against PG&E and the idea that corporate greed was to blame for all of California's grid woes. PG&E is one of the oldest and largest utilities in the country, and has been lauded as a national leader in clean energy and climate action. It seemed like an overly simplified explanation for a complex problem. As I argue, PG&E operates in a regulatory system that makes it challenging to invest in maintenance needs. While this doesn't let PG&E off the hook for reducing risk in the future, it does make it clear that multiple decision makers need to coordinate solutions and support the utility's efforts.
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