Political dreams, not business sense drive plan for public takeover of PG&E

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Glinda the good witch

It’s not a co-op, despite being “customer owned”. It’s not a utility district or a municipal utility, despite operating “as though it were a public agency”. And it’s certainly not a profit making company. Which leaves wide open the question of what kind of organisational beast San Jose mayor Sam Liccardo and 113 other northern California elected officials think will take over Pacific Gas and Electric’s operations and assets.

The group released a set of “operating principles” for a new, quasi-public entity that would replace PG&E. Key details are missing, including where the money is coming from – bankruptcy judges aren’t in the habit of giving something away for free when others are willing to pay for it – and whether they want PG&E’s natural gas business too.

It’s an all things to all people proposition. Somehow, this new utility will have oversight responsibility for community choice aggregators, which are local governmental agencies – joint powers authorities – that buy electricity and manage customers, via PG&E, in some California cities and counties. But it will have “‘private’ entity legal status” as a “customer-owned utility”. Which makes it sound like a traditional electric cooperative, except that “excess revenues will be re-invested into the communities” it serves, and not rebated to the customers who own it, as co-ops do.

The group’s manifesto includes a long wish list of other goodies the new utility will bestow upon people and public agencies in PG&E’s service territory, such as prioritising capital investment to “prevent wildfires, reduce public safety power shutoff events, and improve overall system reliability”, and “maintaining and growing a skilled workforce” that will improve safety and reliability, as well as customer service. They seem think it’s possible to do all that, while improving “affordability” and offering “options to reduce costs for all ratepayers”.

That would be a neat trick. But it’s only possible to make those kinds of promises when the only cost involved is the price of a press release. Public ownership of monopoly utilities is worth considering, but it’ll only work if the owners – tax payers – are willing to back it financially and if the people running it focus on the tough business of delivering service.