A couple of years ago, there were several horrifying wildfires in California. (Trump blamed all the dang trees.) It turns out many of those fires were caused by criminally negligent practices by Pacific Gas and Electric.
Remember Erin Brockovich? That same PG&E is still around.
LONG diversion coming, but it’s an interesting story. If you don’t want to enjoy my ground-rehashing journalism, scroll down to “But anyway…”
Then there was the period where California tried to bring a market economy to power distribution. I lived in San Diego at the time, and our deal was different than the rest of California. SDG&E was the pilot for phase two of the program. I could choose my own power generator. Obviously I chose a company that generated electricity (relatively) responsibly. And while the electricity that my ultra-hippie power-generation company actually produced probably didn’t reach my outlets, it all evens out on the grid.
But the grid isn’t a magical system that transparently moves power to where it’s needed. The grid has choke-points, and there are critical spots between northern and southern California that PG&E and Enron and Ross Perot identified early on.
The evil companies were actually contracted to write the software that tied electric rates to supply, and they built in a key weakness: If they could contrive a shortage in one part of the state, they could charge everyone extortionist rates. The film-flams even had cute names in the internal memos at Enron and their pals. I don’t know how much California paid them for this service.
PG&E was a pal.
The system went into place, and after a few months the energy companies started actively fucking with California. They COULD have subtly and gently influenced the energy market over the course of years, and might still be doing it now, but greedy fucks will always be greedy fucks and the evil energy companies decided to loot California for as much as they could get as fast as they could get it.
Rolling blackouts hit Southern California, as too much electricity was bottled up in the north. People lost the contents of their freezers. Businesses failed. Hospitals scrambled. People died. The energy companies made a quick billion dollars.
The narrative at the time, guided by a credulous media was, “those darn Californians sure waste a lot of energy!” And none of us down in the rolling blackouts thought to consider that energy companies like PG&E would intentionally do this to us.
But they had. And when the dust settled and California scrapped its free-market energy experiment (the energy companies made sure there would be no actual free market), PG&E was sitting on a giant pile of fraudulent cash. The lawyers would be coming.
Lucky for PG&E, Enron was even more evil, and had been destroying the lives of their own employees while they ripped off California. In slick maneuvering the lawyers defending Enron’s top criminals managed to seal the documents implicating the evil energy companies in collusion and fraud on a scale this country has not seen before or since. (Before the docs were sealed, they were widely reported on, but once they were sealed, they could not be used for other prosecutions.)
Meanwhile, PG&E split itself in half. One half had the money, the other half could be sued. Both halves are owned by the same motherfuckers; they were just pulling yet another fast one. Without the smoking gun of the sealed documents, that was enough to protect the dirty money they had made. SDG&E did similar sleight-of-hand. My hippie electricity provider apologized for not being to do business in such a toxic environment.
We’ll pass over the time when PG&E’s negligence led to a gas line explosion that blew up a few houses. “Decaying infrastructure,” the headlines said, as if a company making billions using the infrastructure wasn’t responsible for maintaining it.
Then there were the fires, and the roughly 2400 lawsuits that followed when people figured out that PG&E was a bunch of assholes that doesn’t mind killing people for profit.
PG&E faced a lot of ire. One of the biggest criticisms was, “If you’re not going to do the work to make your part of the grid safe, at least turn off the power in at-risk areas before another disaster happens.”
When we think of the grid we think of giant skeletal frames bearing wire, marching in eerily straight lines across the landscape. But there’s another part of the grid, where those massive lines terminate and split into smaller high-voltage transmission lines. There are a bazillion of those power poles in California, and they are not all inspected as often as they should be. Branches get close to lines, the wind blows, lines come down and fires start.
In the face of lawsuits and PG&E’s contrived dodge-the-consequences bankruptcy and generally bad PR, PG&E is determined this year to not be the cause of another deadly wildfire. Today they have shut down the power to large chunks of Silicon Valley for safety, along with widespread shutdowns in more rural areas up north.
People are somehow surprised about this, even though PG&E has been saying they would do it for more than a year now.
That whole diversion above was mainly to let you all know I’m no shill for PG&E. I hate those fuckers. I hate them more than you do. I hate them almost as much as the poisoned families Erin Brockovich represented do.
But there is outrage today against the evil bastards that is misplaced. We TOLD them to stop causing deadly wildfires. That is what they are doing. They TOLD us that they might have to turn off the power, and we should be ready.
THIS IS NOT A SURPRISE. It is not out of the blue.
It is not some screw-job by PG&E. They don’t make money when we eat barbecue by candlelight.
On the other hand, I do have to wonder. I can sense a petulant child behind these shutdowns, a pudgy frowny sweaty child-face saying “you want safety? I’ll shut all you fuckers down and then you’ll appreciate what I do for you!”
Obviously I can’t prove that.
But these shutdowns do prove what perhaps we’ve known for a long time. The grid sucks. The grid has given the evil bastards at PG&E and Enron and the rest the power to jerk us over. The grid has been inconvenient for those same bastards to maintain, so they don’t, and it kills people.
Even when the grid is working perfectly, it is terribly inefficient. More than half the energy generated is lost in transmission.
We need to destroy PG&E, cut through the bullshit corporate layers and recover the money they have stolen from us. Don’t sue the shell companies, sue the people. But it’s not just enough to destroy PG&E. We have to destroy the grid.
The grid gives them power. The grid causes deadly fires. The grid consumes half the electricity generated in this country even before it reaches an outlet.
The technology exists, now, to make electricity a cottage industry. I imagine my neighborhood making a deal and turning all our rooftops into a solar collective. Those panels wouldn’t cover the energy use of the park, but we could partner with local energy companies and because of local generation, the transmission loss would be reduced, so the price could be reduced as well.
“Buy local” is especially appropriate when referring to electricity.
There was never any attempt to bring a market economy to power in California. You never had a choice of power generator. I remember looking at the various options we had, and looking at the mix between green and non-green power generation, compared to the average; every option, even options supposedly was focused on green power generation, had exactly the same mix percentage-wise.
What we actually had was an exchange run by California bureaucrats. They claimed it was a means of simulating a market economy, but if you looked at it, it was clearly designed to deny a market economy. Long-term contracts were forbidden. Negotiating prices was forbidden; well, technically not forbidden, but the power options didn’t get to pay the price they negotiated. The formula decided the price they were going to pay, and it was designed to run high. Everybody paid the same price.
This was what Enron did; they looked at the formula and manipulated the inputs to the formula, forcing all of your options to pay high prices for power, who of course passed the formula’s costs on to you. That wouldn’t have worked in a market economy, because you and I could have chosen to switch to different power generators, and we’d have negotiated prices with them already anyway so that faking high prices wouldn’t have altered our contracts.
Texas appears to be doing a much better job of it. I can choose from a variety of options that actually provide different mixes of power, and I can choose different prices and choose different contract lengths.
Not only did I end up paying only slightly more for electricity for a three-bedroom house in Texas with air conditioning compared to a one-bedroom apartment in San Diego without air conditioning, but the companies themselves were very responsive when I had to contact them—which was only once, because I couldn’t believe it was that easy to set up power for my house so assumed I had done something wrong. I hadn’t: the power was turned on automatically the day I drove up to the house.
Not surprising, I guess, that Texas would do a better job of that than California did. At the vary least they had a lot of mistakes to learn from.
However I had personal experience that was different than your assertions — Green Mountain did have a different energy mix at a different price. (That price wasn’t a constant; it was a mark-up over some unethically-computed “base” price — so the choosing provider part was there, but not the negotiating price part you mention.) I don’t remember how I heard about Green Mountain but it might have been direct marketing. Maybe I was on a hippie list somewhere. Nowhere else in California did people have that choice, though.
So that’s not to say SDG&E was good, not at all. I believe they did a similar shell game after the system cratered to protect their ill-gotten gains. But the rules were different there than in the rest of California.
I was surprised when Green Mountain bailed on the entire system; I figured they must have been making pretty good money. But that was soon before the entire system was finally put out of our misery.
It did get California to go in big on LED traffic signals, through. They started with the red ones, because those are lit more of the time. That’s got to be symbolic of something.
Green Mountain is who I was thinking of; at the time that I looked into them, according to their three-fold flier I’d picked up somewhere, their mix was exactly the same as the general mix; it had the same percentages all down the column. The flier said that what they did that made them green was donate to clean energy solutions. At the time I thought that was silly, but it didn’t occur to me it was indicative of a larger problem with the system. It was only afterward, when I learned how the system worked, that I realized why they did it that way.
As to why Green Mountain would have left the system, my understanding is that they were on the losing side of the exchange, in that they had to buy power from the exchange at whatever price the formula said they had to pay, which could change daily. They weren’t allowed to go outside the exchange to find less expensive sources or negotiate long-term contracts.
The Enrons and their ilk were on the other side of the exchange, manipulating the system to increase the price the formula said they would get from the Green Mountains and, ultimately, us.
I’m also surprised I didn’t mention Duke Energy, except with a reference to Ross Perot. They were just as evil as Enron in looting California.