George Boardman: Here’s a new business line that would make NID very popular in the county | TheUnion.com

George Boardman: Here’s a new business line that would make NID very popular in the county

George Boardman
Columnist

Observations from the center stripe: Drama edition

THE HOLLYWOOD influence: We have our go bags; in southern California, they have apocalypse bags … PG&E SENT a robocall saying we could find out if we were going to lose power by going to a website and entering a code consisting of 13 letters and numbers. Let me jot that down … I WONDER if area hospitals are seeing a spike in food poisoning since the blackouts? … SO MICROSOFT beat out Amazon for the Pentagon’s $10 billion cloud computing contract. You don’t really think Amazon had a chance after Trump criticized the company and founder Jeff Bezos, do you? … REP. KATIE Hill gave new meaning to the term “nothing to hide” before she resigned her congressional seat after nude pictures of her surfaced on the Internet …

It says nothing good about PG&E’s standing in the community when political opposites Supervisor Ed Scofield and Nevada City Mayor Reinette Senum agree it’s time for public agencies to seize control of the utility’s infrastructure in Nevada County.

Senum was first to call for a public takeover of the utility, and now Scofield is joining the chorus, suggesting the Nevada Irrigation District might be the vehicle for creating a locally controlled power utility.

“Could expansion into the power business be a viable option for NID?” Scofield asked in a letter published by YubaNet and The Union. “We see the potential for increased safety and security from wildfire threat, more reliable service, and lower utility rates. It is a promising prospect, and NID is listening.”

Several cities are already pursuing the idea. San Francisco has offered $2.5 billion for the utility’s assets in the city, and San Jose is considering a bid. Yolo County’s Valley Clean Energy made a $300 million bid to buy PG&E’s poles and lines in the county.

Meanwhile, Rocklin is studying the idea and Lincoln is considering tapping into either Roseville Electric Utility or the Sacramento Municipal Utility District. You can bet more counties and cities will be exploring a PG&E takeover if the blackouts continue.

It turns out NID has been studying the possibility for over a year, and Scofield’s statement was designed to encourage a large turnout at a workshop on the idea last week. The prospect of getting rid of PG&E drew an overflow crowd.

While taking over PG&E’s local operations is an alluring prospect to frustrated consumers, it would be neither simple nor easy. For starters, PG&E will demand top dollar for any infrastructure it has to part with, and it valued its assets at over $59 billion as recently as December 2018. The utility has already rejected San Francisco’s offer and basically told San Jose not to bother.

NID General Manager Rem Scherzinger said if the utility is unwilling to sell its electricity assets in Nevada County, the district can resort to eminent domain. But state Senator Jerry Hill (D, San Mateo), a longtime critic of PG&E who would like to break up the utility, said such a legal proceeding is long, costly, and could saddle the winner with some of PG&E’s liabilities.

Taking over PG&E’s facilities won’t solve the problem of power shutoffs because the power lines will still be strung along poles, ready to cause the next fire. Solving that problem involves burying the lines, a process that PG&E claims costs up to $3 million a mile. If NID passed that cost onto rate payers, the fee for hooking up to the district’s water supply would seem like chump change in comparison.

If NID is looking for another line of business that fits easily into the culture of a public utility, it should take on a project that would earn it the everlasting gratitude of businesses, people who would like to grow our local economy, and citizens fed up with developing world computer communications.

I’m suggesting NID create a county broadband system that would bring high-speed communications to the foothills. As Chelsea Walterscheid of the Sierra Business Council put it delicately recently: “Broadband brings out emotions, as we all know in this county.”

Walterscheid made the comment during a presentation to the county Board of Supervisors, where she declared the challenge of bringing broadband to the county can only be overcome through a multifaceted “patchwork” approach that combines several strategies and focuses on policy within the country’s control.

Anybody who has followed this issue will appreciate the heavy dose of irony in Walterscheid’s comments. We are forced to take a patchwork approach because the supervisors have showed zero vision, initiative or resourcefulness in solving the problem.

NID is perfectly positioned to step into this void. For starters, it already owns the right-of-way that could provide the backbone for a county-wide broadband system, it wouldn’t be burdened with a network of expensive transmission lines that would have to be put underground anyway, and it would be entering well-trod territory.

Over 800 communities in the U.S., most of them rural areas like Nevada County, have created municipal networks or cooperatives to bring high speed service to their communities, as Erica Kosina of Nevada County Tech Connection wrote in The Union recently. At least 20 municipal networks deliver 10 gigabit service, and 150 have at least one gigabit of internet service.

One such system exists less than 100 miles from here, in Plumas County. “Plumas Sierra Telecommunications worked with the Plumas County Office of Education, the Center of Economic Development, and California State University Chico to gather information about broadband needs in the community,” Kosina reports. “They used grants … to construct a ‘middle-mile’ 198-mile fiber optic network from Reno, Nevada, north to Susanville, California, and west to Quincy …

“The Plumas Sierra Network now serves schools, colleges, libraries, county offices, hospitals, the Herlong Army Depot, and other businesses throughout Plumas, Lassen and Sierra counties. They are continuing to expand the fiber optic network to businesses that request service.”

I’m not saying it would be easy for NID to build a similar system in Nevada County, but it has to be easier — and less costly — than trying to wrestle infrastructure from PG&E and running its own electric company. Does NID really want to wade into that swamp?

My proposal makes so much sense, it will probably never happen.

George Boardman lives at Lake of the Pines. His column is published Mondays by The Union. Write to him at boredgeorgeman@gmail.com.


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