Jeff Ackerman: PG&E customers need a Plan B |

Jeff Ackerman: PG&E customers need a Plan B

Jeff Ackerman

Before you clamor for the state to take control of PG&E, ask yourself one question: “Do I want the same people who run my highways, transportation system and parks making decisions on my power rates and shutoffs?”

If I was PG&E … and I’m glad I’m not … I would tell Gov. Gavin Newsom to take a hike in one of his parks, or maybe go for an evening stroll through the downtown streets of his former city (without a security detail), or … if he doesn’t want to walk … take a ride on the high speed train (if he can find it), or maybe take a drive on Highway 101 on a weekday through San Jose at … say … 5 p.m.

Newsom is the last guy who should be giving PG&E a lecture on accountability or mismanagement.

Not that PG&E doesn’t deserve it, mind you. It’s bankrupt for a reason, mostly having to do with mismanagement and a few things that have nothing to do with how that utility company is managed.

There just isn’t an easy way out of this that doesn’t include a campfire, flashlight, or candle.

Let’s start with that stuff, and the recognition that delivering electricity to people who choose to live in the woods because they can’t afford to live in the city (the median price of a home in Newsom’s hometown of San Francisco is $1.7 MILLION), or because they love the sound of birds instead of car horns and sirens.

Pacific Gas and Electric manages around 106,000 miles of transmission line. Most of those miles run through trees; the kind of trees that don’t like it when they come in contact with an electrical current. Especially when they are dry after a long, hot summer. The thing about trees is that they grow and it’s tough to keep 106,000 miles of power lines clear of those branches that keep coming back.

It sounds like PG&E got a little behind in its tree-trimming maintenance, which resulted in the devastating fire that destroyed Paradise and has admitted that it may be responsible for the fire that is raging through Sonoma.

In PG&E’s defense … keeping trees away from 106,000 miles of power line is nearly impossible. For starters, not many people I know are willing to climb near a live power line to do it. Especially in a storm. That’s why a lineman job is on the “10 Most Dangerous Jobs” list, right up there with crab fishing and being a newspaper reporter, or former publisher.

Some say we should just stick those lines underground, where they will be safe from dry trees and runaway cows. That’s a GREAT idea, but PG&E says it will cost as much as $3 million per mile to do that and … again … there are 106,000 miles of power line to stick in the ground and that … according to my math … is … Holy Mother of God … a LOT of money.

In fact … if I divide the estimated $300 billion it would cost by PG&E’s 16 million customers, every man, woman and child would need to pay $18,750. Who wants to write the first check?

It can’t be PG&E. They’re bankrupt … remember? They don’t have the money to do that because there are a LOT of people in line to be paid, including the PG&E head honcho, who earns somewhere in the neighborhood of $5 million, when you include stock and other incentives. I wonder if his own neighborhood has been hit with the rolling power outages? If so, he can probably buy a generator large enough to heat his pool and Jacuzzi.

Then there is the time it would take to put 106,000 miles of line underground. PG&E estimates it will take five years just to put 76 miles of power line underground around the town of Paradise.

Math is hard, but … that’s 15.2 miles per year. At that rate it would take around 6,973 years to put 106,000 miles underground and by then we will also be underground and won’t care if the food in the refrigerator goes bad.

You get the idea. If you are a customer of PG&E, you really need a Plan B. There just isn’t an easy way out of this that doesn’t include a campfire, flashlight, or candle.

But having the state assume control of what has been described as a “sh-t show” isn’t a good idea. There is a lot of luggage that comes with that show, including liability that would need to be absorbed by every California taxpayer, including those who aren’t current PG&E customers.

In an Oct. 22 article for Vox (a general interest news site), author David Roberts offered some solutions, including, “hardening the grid and improving fire safety of the grid infrastructure; changing housing and land use policies that encourage people to move outward into fire prone areas; reforming a dysfunctional and bankrupt PG&E; and making the electricity system more localized through solar panels, batteries, micro-grids and other forms of distributed power.”

I love California. I was born in beautiful Downtown Burbank and it breaks my heart to see what’s happening up and down the state. It’s obvious by now that we can’t continue to spend trillions on endless wars in the Middle East while our infrastructure at home (highways, utilities, bridges, etc.) continues to crumble.

The Romans learned the hard way what happens when you neglect your own house.

Jeff Ackerman is a former publisher of The Union. He may be reached at

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