Rewarding Monstrous Behavior

Some of the hidden costs to PG&E’s “Public Safety Power Shut Off” program are being borne by water districts throughout the state. 

The water district I manage, the Laytonville County Water District, is a good example of a problem that is not exactly an unintended consequence of PG&E’s power down policy. Here’s what I’m talking about.

According to PG&E, our region could experience up to an estimated 80 days of total electrical shutdowns, that could have a duration of five days or more in length. The decision to shut off power is based on a calculus of various criteria including weather conditions, wind, fuel loads in the affected area, the vulnerability of electrical infrastructure in a specific area, etc.

It goes without saying that no one is going to know exactly when the shutoffs are going to occur for two reasons. PG&E has the sole authority, as established by the state legislature and California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), to make the decision. And secondly, the decision to cut the power is a highly subjective assessment of multiple factors.

Public water utilities, such as the one I work for, are extremely uneasy about the potential effects of an extended power shutoff and our ability to provide water to our customers. But there are also other issues of concern.

Because of the expense, most small, rural water districts don’t have backup electrical power on site, therefore, they have to rent large portable generators of sufficient electrical output to operate water system pumping systems. Rural counties like Mendocino, have no where near the quantity of portable generators available to rent to all the affected public and private sector entities in the event of a five-day or longer power shutdown.

My water district, assuming our nearly one-million gallons of water in storage tanks were full at the time of the electrical cutoff, could supply water through gravity flow to ratepayers for approximately three days with a strict conservation mandate imposed. If the power shutdown was longer than three days, we would hopefully be able to rent a large generator. So it’s a critical operational issue that we maintain near full storage capacity at all times during fire season which is now extended to the early winter months.

In order to meet this goal, our district is now operating on a 24/7 schedule much of the time, and it is very costly to do so. Prior to PG&E’s “Public Safety Power Shut Off” program, for years we operated during high water consumption months — June through October —from the hours of 6 p.m. to 12 noon the following day. Those hours were PG&E’s “off-peak” electrical rates. Peak rates are billed for electrical usage during the noon to 6 p.m. period. Those peak rates are approximately four-times the cost of off-peak rates.

The new reality for our water district is the only way we can meet our public safety obligation given the total uncertainty surrounding when PG&E will cut off electricity, is we must operate during the most expensive hours of the day. 

So here’s the deal. PG&E is exclusively responsible for this entire epic disaster of wildfire deaths and historically prodigious property destruction because it made a decision a decade ago to forego and not comply with statutory mandates to maintain its overhead infrastructure by keeping it clear of vegetative and tree growth. Instead, it cold-bloodedly determined that it was more important to look after the financial interests of its shareholders instead of the best interests of its ratepayers.

And PG&E is now making new money off the backs of water districts that are forced to pay outrageously inflated electrical rates because we take our responsibilities seriously to protect the public health and safety of our customers, while that company is rewarded with not one but two public bailouts in consecutive years by the state legislature for its negligence, mismanagement, incompetence, and putting its interests above all else?

Something, as they say, is wrong with a picture that rewards PG&E for what is nothing less than monstrous behavior.

Isn’t it about time for the politicians to provide the people they represent with security from gouging and making public safety their top priorities instead of recompensing a company that has killed several hundred people in the very recent past?

(Jim Shields is the Mendocino County Observer’s editor and publisher, and is also the long-time district manager of the Laytonville County Water District. Listen to his radio program “This and That” every Saturday at 12 noon on KPFN 105.1 FM, also streamed live: http://www.kpfn.org)

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