Bernie Sanders’ $100 billion take-over of PG&E will make California’s electricity problem worse

By Tom Dalzell, Special to California

As Super Tuesday approaches, Democratic presidential candidates are turning their attention to California, where our 494 delegates make the Golden State the biggest prize. 

Many are rolling out policy proposals they think will win them votes. One in particular deserves our attention. Earlier this month, Sen. Bernie Sanders released a proposal, originally advanced by the Democratic Socialists of America, to convert PG&E from an investor owned utility to a ward of that state.

As the head of the union that represents more than 12,000 frontline energy workers at PG&E, and as a tax-paying Californian, I oppose this plan on its merits, or lack thereof.

  • First, it will cost taxpayers roughly $100 billion dollars. 
  • Second, it will raise energy bills for millions of California’s working families, and could reduce reliability. 
  • Third, and possibly most importantly, it will slow down the environmental progress we are making to reduce emissions.

First, let’s take a look at the price tag: $100 billion is a fairly conservative estimate considering the totality of the grid, plus all of the assets, substations, infrastructure, real estate and staff the state of California would have to subsume. 

And it’s important to note that that figure does not include liability costs for the recent wildfires, which are estimated to total $30 billion. Realistically, $100 billion may be the tip of the iceberg. 

In accordance with California’s inverse condemnation laws, the owner of the company—in this case the people of California—would be liable for any future fires the company’s equipment might cause. 

So next year, if another climate-driven wildfire is sparked by a remote line, taxpayers would be on the hook.

Second, let’s look at how PG&E, and the myriad improvements it needs to make, would be financed in the years ahead. 

The truth is that rates would go up, and every Californian in PG&E’s service territory would be forced to pay more. And it is fair to ask: do we really want the people who manage the the Department of Motor Vehicles responsible for delivering power to 16 million Californians and businesses?

None of this is necessary. California already has the power to regulate the company and demand that it improve. To make PG&E safer, we don’t need to raise our energy bills and reward Wall Street moguls, who would be the real beneficiary of this payout. 

We have the power to regulate them now, so let’s demand our elected officials use that power wisely.

And third, it is crystal clear that public ownership would not stop climate change. The state already has mandated that PG&E be greener, and the utility leads the country in reduction of emissions. 

The bureaucratic nightmare of a government takeover would set many effective programs back, or even stop them in their tracks. It is not responsible—and we simply do not have the time—to stop what is working and push these programs down the road.

There is no shortage of policy reasons to oppose Sen. Sanders’ flawed proposal. But, I am deeply troubled by how it was developed and announced.

Agree or disagree, we expect political leaders to listen to workers before they make decisions that affect those workers. 

Sen. Sanders and his team did not consult with us or a single affected worker before announcing this scheme. If he had, we would have told him the truth: PG&E needs to get much better. It needs reform and it needs it now. 

But spending $100 billion or more and raising energy bills for hard working Californians is not going to make the situation better. It is going to make it worse.


Tom Dalzell is business manager of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 1245, which represents PG&E workers, [email protected] He wrote this commentary for CalMatters. To read his previous commentary for CalMatters, please click here.

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