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Newsom, CPUC president prove they are clueless in Sacramento
dennis Wyatt web
Dennis Wyatt

The lapdog has awakened.

The California Public Utilities Commission is now licking the hand that, for all practical purposes, controls them demanding that in the next planned power outage PG&E better have the power back on in 12 hours or else.

The question is or else what? Is the CPUC going to refuse to wag its tail the next time after it rubber stamps a PG&E rate increase to display their displeasure?

On Monday, Oct. 14 the head of the state consumer watchdog agency, CPUC President Marybel Batjer, snarled — actually more like whimpered — that how dare PG&E take up to four days to restore the power. She warned they’d better get the power back on in 12 hours or less the next time.

That is such a hollow public relations posturing threat it’s difficult to know where to start.

The worst kept secret in Northern California for the past four months has been if PG&E turns off the power intentionally during extreme wildfire conditions that the power would be out for between two to four days.

Why didn’t the CPUC — that had full knowledge of what PG&E was doing and why it would take so long to re-energize lines — say something back in May? Did they not believe that a for-profit utility that has a rich history of playing fast and loose with rate hike revenue they were allowed to collect for specific purposes that is trying to avoid being devoured in bankruptcy court was somehow fibbing?

It kind of seems that way as the CPUC should know firsthand how well PG&E doesn’t keep its word.

Perhaps Batjer didn’t say anything sooner because she knows full well the CPUC as a watchdog is nothing but a geriatric toothless hound that couldn’t catch a whiff of filet mignon six inches away let alone sniff out improper behavior.

And what exactly will the CPUC do if PG&E fails to comply besides curling up in the for-profit utility’s lap and go back to sleep?

As much as the average PG&E customer distrusts the folks that go through the revolving door in the firm’s corporate suite and keep jumping ship with their pockets stuffed with $100,000 bills while floating to multi-millionaire status hanging onto golden parachutes after overseeing bankruptcies, ratepayer gouging, and company equipment taking out 85 people and burning 14,000 homes, they understand the concept PG&E just can’t simply throw the switch back on.

Apparently that is not the case with the CPUC that, based on Batjer’s demands, thinks PG&E should take shortcuts restoring power.

If PG&E was absolutely reckless instead of being deliberately reckless as they have been for the last 20 years with maintenance and operation issues, they’d turn the power back on within an hour of determining the wildfire condition emergency has passed. The reason is simple. A sizable chunk of a PG&E bill covers the cost of the actual electricity you use. Not only do they not get paid for power they don’t sell which means they sacrifice the 10.5 percent profit they would have made but they have contracts for wholesale power they have to pay for regardless of whether the electricity is used.

PG&E may have a lot of faults but failing to maximize their profits isn’t one of them. And by being reckless with turning power back on would stress their profitability if they simply re-energize their lines without checking their assets out first.

For the record, PG&E did detect — and fix — more than 100 incidents of storm damage to their power system including downed power lines that typically spark wildfires. They also managed not to turn places like Arnold — with similar conditions to Paradise — into another burned out community.

And while the CPUC president was busy lecturing the corporate delinquent on federal probation for a series of felonies connected with the aftermath of their San Bruno neighborhood renewal endeavor that killed 8 people and destroyed three dozen homes, Gov. Gavin Newsom on Monday was pandering to the public.

Newsom is demanding PG&E issue refunds to household accounts and small businesses that had their power cut by the for-profit utility. The governor wants PG&E to issue checks or credits to the tune of $100 for an impacted household and $250 for a small business. Of course he says the shareholders should pay (“wink, wink”) and not the ratepayers for a tab that could easily exceed $100 million.

Now as much as you believe PG&E should not be allowed to get away with not making people whole for the financial losses that are the end result of the utility’s decades of trying to run PG&E into the ground to maximize profits, you’ve got to wonder what Newsom is thinking.

The odds are great that before December rolls around Northern California will enjoy another planned power outage on the scale of the one we just enjoyed as well as numerous smaller ones.

Newsom’s plan would pile on an additional $250 million to PG&E’s woes to compensate in a small way those that lost food in their refrigerators, couldn’t go to work because their place of employment was without power, and a pile of other financial suffering both big and small.

That would simply steer money away from what should be job one for PG&E — improving the reliability and safety of the electrical system.

Newsom, who clearly lacks a plan or the backbone to do anything other than hope for the best and that PG&E will emerge from bankruptcy reborn as the Ben & Jerry’s of power companies acting responsible and caring, is simply trying to feign that he shares the anger and frustration of 16 million PG&E customers many of whom vote.

Perhaps Newsom should donate the equivalent of the $58,400 he took in direct campaign donations from PG&E and another $150,000 from political action committees acting on his behalf and donate it to a fund that helps PG&E customers.

Help them with what? Well if they are poor or elderly on a fixed income it could help them pay for sky high PG&E bills that are near the top of the nation. It could go to help the owner of the 14,000 homes that were turned to toast by malfunctioning equipment cover the gap between their losses and what they receive from insurance companies and PG&E settlements. Or maybe it could help those Californians on extremely tight incomes who saw their homeowners insurance policies jump $100 or more to cover wildfire risk and losses even though they are 60 miles away from the nearest area with a potential to be destroyed in a wildfire thanks to PG&E equipment.

Perhaps the problem isn’t as much with PG&E that has a history of taking a mile when they are given an inch as opposed to people being clueless in Sacramento.

This column is the opinion of Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Ceres Courier or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA.