Why don’t we break up PG&E?

PG&E power lines in the East Bay, Oct. 10, 2019. Photo by Jose Carlos Fajardo / Bay Area News Group

The idea: An inordinate number of catastrophic wildfires have been traced to Pacific Gas and Electric, which powers most of Northern California, from big cities to remote wildlands. One idea is to transition California’s largest investor-owned utility into one public utility or break it up into a bunch of municipal utilities.

The pros: PG&E is a bankrupt corporation that has been found guilty of six federal felonies, not to mention a history of water contamination, pipeline explosions and electrical fires that are killing people. It knew for years that aging equipment was at risk of sparking wildfires. And it was reported that former CEO Bill Johnson stood to make millions once the company’s stock rebounds after bankruptcy. So yes, PG&E’s track record makes it easy to rally public support for a government takeover.

The cons: Breaking up PG&E may be more costly for consumers and leaves questions about how to serve rural communities, such as the Sierra foothills, where it is more expensive to maintain the electric grid. Plus, those wooded areas are at greater risk for wildfires, no matter whose wire the spark comes from.

The odds: Two in 10. San Francisco, San Jose and other cities are exploring the possibility of a customer-owned cooperative, but local annexation of PG&E territory has been litigious and costly for cities that have tried it.

And even though Gov. Gavin Newsom threatened a state takeover, he ultimately signed off on PG&E’s restructuring plan. In exchange, he got a pledge from the utility to improve grid safety, compensate victims and revamp its board of directors. The state also got more teeth. Under the agreement, PG&E could be sold if the company is unable to succeed or has its license revoked by state regulators for failing to meet safety improvements.