Piotr Cymbalski: Putting an end to the PG&E blackouts
Approximately two million Californians unwillingly participated in several of the most massive and lingering peacetime power shutdowns since widespread electrical distribution began, with the promise of more over the next decade.
The power shutdowns have caused billions of dollars in unrecoverable damages for organizations and individuals alike. It is time to take action together as Californians to provide for ourselves and our communities, and I will propose a way to do that.
It is not the utility’s act of de-energizing the grid which is at fault; instead, it is the fact that the power lines are in such poor repair that it is necessary to shut them down to avoid a catastrophic fire. Evidence of this decay is obvious to anyone who looks upwards as they travel through our communities. Who hasn’t seen a tree lovingly embracing a power line, or a particular utility pole leaning over a roadway at a rakish angle?
Simply giving PG&E more money obviously will not work; they have been given great deals of money for decades to fix their infrastructure, only for them to beg for more. Yet, a decade or more of power outages throughout our state will cost us further billions of dollars. Privatizing the utility will quite possibly cost more, and would leave us dealing with the problem for even longer, as we must first sort the ownership of every bit of PG&E infrastructure, and rely on state bidding processes for repairs.
My proposal is revenue-neutral, fast-acting, and once completed, leaves our state more self-reliant than before. It requires little oversight, and harnesses the innovation our state is known for, and will produce high-paying jobs. Most of all, individual homeowners and renters will benefit directly from this approach.
Simply put, I propose replacing the power supply of every affected Californian with a solar power system — either a micro-grid for their neighborhood or a household system. This will be done at no additional cost to the homeowners, as they will continue to pay their regular utility rates until their system is paid off, at which point they own it and all the electricity it produces. This takes approximately 10 years, regardless of the size, as people who require larger systems already pay higher utility bills.
To pay the up-front costs to solar installers, the state or the counties will issue bonds. The bonds will be repaid by those homeowners who have elected to receive the solar panels. Homeowners will thus have a choice between the intermittently functioning grid system, or an equally-priced constant supply of power from their own solar panels and battery systems. Similar offers will be granted to landlords of rental properties and apartments, ensuring that renters will have the same protection from PG&E’s mismanagement.
The state need not further subsidize any particular manufacturer or service; it only provides and negotiates financing for consumers. This way, no favorites are picked, ensuring the solar panel industry remains competitive. That said, the bond issuer will retain the right to refuse financing for solar companies that have attempted to game the system or mistreat consumers.
Finally, the counties or the state can reduce costs or increase capacity be establishing “micro grids,” or neighborhood power grids. In these instances, homeowners with the ability to install additional solar power capacity can volunteer to do so, and make money by selling excess energy to their neighbors. The entire micro grid system can be separate from PG&E’s mismanaged grid, ensuring safety, and its portion of the bonds can be paid back as a single unit. These grids will be run by neighborhood groups, directly accountable to the people who rely on them for power and are most affected by their safety.
There are many ways this system can be enhanced. Homeowners may be able to upgrade their solar power at a later date with financing through a similar system, allowing homes to grow easily. It may be possible to open this financial system to businesses, and free ourselves entirely from PG&E. Other self-sufficient power supplies, such as wind or micro hydro, could be reasonable additions to the program. These are all minor changes, however.
The objective is, at its core, only this: to use the state’s financial power to enable individuals to become more self-sufficient and more independent.
Piotr Cymbalski lives in Grass Valley.
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