REWIND: A tribute to PG&E, featuring Billy Joel and AC/DC

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Billy Joel, We Didn't Start the Fire

Billy Joel didn’t start the fire. It was probably PG&E.

A trigger warning for our Bay Area and Northern California readers: This column is an ode to PG&E.

As our non-Californian readers may have heard, California was recently in the midst of a full-blown apocalypse. There were hurricane-force winds, power was intermittently out both due to wind damage and intentional shutdowns and significant chunks of the state were on fire.

Two of those three situations were the fault of the Pacific Gas and Electric Company, and honestly it wouldn’t surprise me if the wind was their fault, too, somehow. So join me in paying musical tribute to the worst company in the entire world, surpassing even Comcast.




AC/DC — “Moneytalks”

In 2005, PG&E came out of bankruptcy and reinstated dividends. That was where everything began to go wrong.

You see, PG&E, the power and gas monopoly for most of northern California, is not only a for-profit company but a publicly traded corporation. Its goal is to make as much money for its shareholders as possible. So its actual customers, unless they also happen to own a significant number of shares, aren’t the ones it has to keep happy for the people in charge keep their jobs. After all what are we going to do, use the other monopoly?

From the reinstatement of dividends in 2005 to its resuspension in 2017, PG&E paid out more than $4.5 billion. Billion, with a B.


Glen Campbell — “Wichita Lineman”

But where did that $4.5 billion come from? There are some protections for the customers; rate increases must be approved by the state, so PG&E couldn’t just outright gouge everyone to cut its shareholders—which, of course, includes themselves—bigger dividend checks.

Fortunately they found something that nobody would miss: Maintenance. PG&E spent millions less on maintaining lines, replacing towers, and trimming trees than it claimed it would, and that money went to dividends. Some towers were still standing 25 years after the end of what PG&E itself considers their useful life.

But the shareholders were happy. What could possibly go wrong?




Billy Joel — “We Didn’t Start the Fire”

In 2017, four trees that should have been trimmed fell on power lines around Napa. More than 1,450 buildings burned down in the fires they sparked. Then, a line that should have been inspected broke loose from a 99-year old tower that should have been replaced. The resulting fire killed 85 people and burned nearly the entire town of Paradise.

Again, this was all due to the budgets PG&E slashed. While climate change certainly helped the fires spread, the ignition was a collection of known problems that $4.5 billion would have easily solved with money left over. Following the company’s own guidelines would have saved those 85 people.

Everyone involved learned their lesson and immediately poured resources into fixing the problem, right?


Simon and Garfunkel — “The Sound of Silence”

As of Oct. 1 of this year PG&E is only about 31 percent done with this court-mandated tree trimming. Let’s unpack that for a second; not only was it so far behind that it isn’t even a third done after two years, and not only did it dump all its resources into the project to catch up as fast as possible, but a court had to order them to do it and monitor its progress.

No, it couldn’t possibly be bothered to maintain its own equipment. It found a way to make it our problem: When the wind picks up it just shuts off everyone’s power. All the food in your fridge goes bad? Tough. You have medication that has to stay chilled or medical devices that need to be plugged in? Buy a generator with all that money you didn’t spend managing your chronic health condition.

That’s not an exaggeration, by the way.

On top of all that PG&E botched the announcement of the first power outage so badly that Caltrans, the state transportation agency, didn’t even get enough warning to have a generator ready to keep open the tunnels that separates San Francisco from the majority of the East Bay. It did, thankfully, but only after terrifying commuters with premature warnings of closures.




Cee-Lo Green — “Fuck You”

Which brings us to now.

The most recent fire, which as of this writing still isn’t out, may have been sparked by another downed PG&E line. The power was shut off for thousands of people… but not to that transmission line.

When asked by a local TV news reporter asked about people living paycheck to paycheck and losing all the food in their refrigerator to spoilage, the CEO of PG&E basically said we should be grateful that his company didn’t burn down their house instead. As if those are the two choices.

Oh, and the customers whose homes they so graciously didn’t incinerate have to pay for the privilege. Rates just went up to pay for damage incurred in the fires. Which they started.

So don’t blame Californians’ politics or environmentalism. Don’t blame socialism. If we made any mistake, it was not being even more socialist and municipalizing PG&E during their last bankruptcy and spending the money how it was intended. Hopefully, we won’t make the same mistake again.



Follow editor Daniel J. Willis and tweet column ideas to him at Twitter.com/BayAreaData.

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